“Guilt, I mused, has an interesting way of twisting one’s thoughts.” — Sherlock Holmes
If you were a prominent “family values” politician caught making gestures indicative of a sexual proposition in a public restroom to an undercover police officer but you were innocent of any such intent, would you plead guilty to a misdemeanor and pay a $575 fine hoping to avoid publicity?
If you were a member of the Senate with a wife and family, and running for re-election on a “mainstream conservative” platform, would your name and phone number surface in the address book of the so-called “D.C. Madam”?
If you were a highly visible social conservative in Congress with higher ambitions and a reputation for pushing laws to protect children from sexual exploitation, would you send sexually explicit e-mails to teenage pages?
If you were the nation’s president, always praising your wife in public, would you fool around with an intern in the Oval Office, have phone sex, otherwise tempt fate for weeks on end and then lie about it to a federal prosecutor under oath?
If you were the married governor of a large state, would you have adulterous sex with a male employee while your wife was in the hospital with your newborn?
I could go on. And on. But I’ll stop there. You get the picture.
We voters have a thankless job. Year after year, we are assaulted with the sexual derring-do of politicians who inevitably act outraged that we could possibly misconstrue their actions. (“I did not have sex with that woman.” “I am not gay. I have never been gay.”)
The issue here is not sexual orientation. The issue is why politicians say the absurd things they say when they are caught in hypocrisy, reckless behavior, compromising situations, deception and, sometimes, unlawful activity.
Increasingly, it does not matter to voters whether a politician is openly gay. Usually, sexual orientation is none of our business. Usually, it has nothing to do with job performance or effectiveness in office. Someday a gay politician will not feel that a fraudulent marriage is a prerequisite to being elected.
But it will always matter to most voters if politicians are publicly condemning the actions of others while privately doing the same things or passing laws that they flagrantly disobey or that would make some people second-class citizens.
We will respect a politician who tells us it is none of our business whether he/she is gay, heterosexual, sexually active or goes to bed only to sleep.
But we don’t like having our noses rubbed in someone else’s morality only to find out that person’s public persona is as phony as, well, a $3 bill.
It will always matter if politicians are passing laws to restrict the freedom of others while hypocritically believing such laws do not apply to themselves.
It will always matter if politicians insist on instructing the rest of us how to live our private lives while behaving like Sens. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, or David Vitter, R-La., or Mark Foley, the Florida Republican forced to resign from the House, or Democratic President Bill Clinton or James McGreevey, the Democratic former governor of New Jersey. Or Gary Condit, a Democrat, or Newt Gingrich, a Republican, two former House lawmakers who condemned Clinton for misbehaving in the same way they were while married.
It should always matter if our politicians turn out to be reckless, arrogant or just plain stupid.
Everyone makes mistakes; everyone has secrets. Most of the time, we do not need to know about others’ sins, and most of the time we should not know about them, even when committed by those we elect to public office.
But when they get caught abusing the trust of the voters, lying in public, breaking public oaths, pleading guilty in law-enforcement procedures, endangering minors and stirring up public dissension over private morality, we have a right to protest.
When they act as though we can’t tell a $3 bill from a $20 bill, they have earned our skepticism. They have played havoc with public trust. They have disrespected their colleagues. They have diminished the body politic.
Here’s to the politician who holds a news conference and says: “I made a bad mistake. It was not alcohol or stress or drugs or premature dementia. I acted stupidly. I abused my office and your trust. I apologize to you all. I will resign immediately. I will take my punishment. I am sorry for the grief I have caused. Goodbye.”
(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)nationalpress.com.)