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The dog-on-the-roof-of-the-car story lost traction when the media discovered that the President had admitted to eating one. Thus, we now confront a story even more remote in time, which strives to raise implications which are certainly far more serious.
Yet, before we venture too far into the subject of how relevant the reported incidents are as a guide to Mitt Romney’s character today, should we not first revisit the threshold question of how deeply the political process should scrutinize a candidate’s personal history? Will those who have stood (often justifiably) aggrieved at attempts to dig into Barack Obama’s past perform an about-face, now that the shoe seems to be on the other foot? I hope not.
It seems as though the media launched this seemingly perpetual cycle back in 1988, when for the first time (at least in my recollection) a presidential campaign imploded under the weight of personal issues. Granted, Gary Hart foolishly challenged the media to “follow him around . . . it will be boring.” I can also recall how Hart’s opponents justified the whole exercise upon as relevant to Hart’s fitness for the presidency, as it supposedly reflected upon his “judgment.”
Fast-forward to the 1991 Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. The poisonous atmosphere that pervades judicial nominations today dates back to the 1987 Bork nomination, which turned not upon personal revelations, but upon positions that Bork had previously articulated. One could argue that Bork’s past writings were drawn out of context and should not have disqualified him for the Supreme Court (to me, serving as the henchman who finally carried out Nixon’s orders to fire Archibald Cox was far more troubling) – but it was hard to argue that those writings were not relevant. In 1991, however – without any other means to stop Thomas’ confirmation – opponents turned to Anita Hill’s sexual harassment allegations. What followed, of course, was a drawn-out media spectacle which amounted to a public trial without discovery, rules of evidence, or any of the other protections which our system supposedly provides to ensure a dispassionate search for the truth.
This show trial even seemed to involve new “law.” While Thomas denied Hill’s accusations in full, some of his supporters suggested a defense of consent – based upon the indefensible notion that just because Hill remained in Thomas’ employment, she had somehow endorsed the alleged behavior. Hill’s supporters responded that an employee-employer situation constitutes a “power relationship” wherein sexual harassment must be implied, regardless of the particular facts and circumstances. Moreover, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee came under attack for showing “insensitivity” toward Professor Hill; this issue played a prominent role in the following year’s Senate campaigns.
Given this backdrop, is President Clinton’s ordeal later that decade surprising in any respect? If we must automatically imply sexual harassment from the mere existence of a “power relationship” between Thomas and Hill, should we not have drawn an even stronger inference from circumstances involving a president and a intern in her 20s? Yet – without any sense of irony regarding what they had unleashed – Thomas’ accusers immediately became Clinton’s defenders. Presumed harassment melted back into “personal indiscretion,” providing a particularly troubling display of the old adage, “where you stand is where you sit.” This time, of course, a public show trial cross-pollinated with actual legal proceedings (the Paula Jones case).
While Jonathan has articulated a very principled, even-handed argument with which I agree in most all respects, I do take exception to one aspect of his position. In our legal system, entire lives can turn upon the weight of false testimony. Accordingly, perjury is never appropriate or acceptable. One can argue very persuasively that President Clinton’s false deposition testimony should have been addressed – if at all – within the legal system instead of Congress (which would likely have required waiting until the end of his presidency), but re-defining his conduct as merely “lying about personal indiscretions” takes us down a dangerous path. For example, the assumption that people will “naturally lie” about personal matters has transformed domestic relations proceedings in some courts into lawless free-for-alls in which perjury is condoned, if not expected (on the basis that people will “naturally lie” about personal matters).
We seem to live in a society bent upon creating illusions of perfection – not only regarding ourselves, but in connection with the leaders we choose. Seeking to maintain such illusions, we rely upon hyper-technical distinctions and highly-nuanced arguments that have the practical effect of adjusting our standards. It would seem far better to set our standards high and exercise common sense, compassion, and mercy when people fall short. Within the legal context, prosecutorial and judicial discretion exist for this very reason.
Of course, the heat and passion of politics inevitably ensures that the slightest flaw will get wildly blown out of proportion. If we try hard enough, we will find a way to connect that flaw to a candidate’s potential performance in office (in 1992, Ross Perot memorably suggested that Bill Clinton’s alleged infidelity was relevant because if his wife could not trust him, how could we?). Yet, the preservation of “government by the people” – or government by human beings – requires us to accept leaders with all-too-human frailties. Could FDR have passed the medical scrutiny John McCain endured four years ago? What about JFK’s “judgment” in sharing a mistress with mob boss Sam Giancana? Would we elect Lincoln today if we knew about the pervasive depression with which he struggled for most of his adult life? How would today’s political inquisitors handle reports that at the age of twelve, Adlai Stevenson accidentally shot and killed a childhood friend?
The bottom line – we simply cannot know enough about an individual’s private life to place what we learn about the same in the proper perspective. The only reliable information we possess is the public record. Sticking with the latter as we assess potential candidates is therefore not only just; it is sensible and practical.
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