Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Mitt Romney: Getting Personal

This article originally appeared on Citizen Think.

For the pundit and political commentator, presidential primary season is like a field of ripened wheat, ready for the scything. Every candidate can be critiqued, bemoaned, belittled and attacked from every angle, their personalities and personal doings subjected to swipe after swipe. For media outlets, this year’s cast of characters offered a particularly rich harvest, from Gingrich’s marriages to Romney’s unsentimental smile. And while our political discourse is especially active during presidential campaigns, there are plenty of crops in the off-seasons, as well. Between philandering congressmen, corrupt governors and criminal mayors, journalists keep their blades sharp year-round finding flaws in our public figures.

Much of this criticism is well deserved, and I agree with every political theorist of the last 400 years who has praised the value of an open press. At the same time, we must be aware of the various breeds of political commentary, and be able to discern the relevant from the irrelevant, the personal from the important.

In particular, I want to take a moment to focus in on one kind of commentary that bears closer scrutiny than it usually receives: attacks on integrity. Attacks on integrity are comments aimed at an individual for his or her perceived deviation from either previously expressed commitments or moral norms. Of the former kind, we might take commentary on Newt Gingrich as an example. As David Frum noted, Newt has historically taken liberal positions on education and climate, positions he now rejects. Attacks like Frum’s on ideological integrity are critiques of a politician’s willingness to shift his positions on a given topic. In a later post, I’ll explore the tension between the virtues of democratic compromise and ideological consistency.

For now, I want to focus on the attacks on moral norms – what we might call attacks onpersonal integrity. These are the kinds of attacks launched against politicians for behavior in their personal lives – for extramarital affairs, multiple wives, illegitimate children, drug use, large personal expenditures and financial irregularities, to name the most prominent [you’ll excuse the use of the male pronoun and the hetero-normativity; as an empirical matter, the vast majority of those tarred and feathered are of the less fair sex].

Some such attacks draw strength from the fact that the individual involved has either directly violated the law (Elliott Spitzer sleeping with prostitutes) or badly abused his position of power (Bill Clinton and his own intern affair). Others, however, are simple ad hominem attacks on an individual for the conduct of his personal affairs.  The attacks on personal integrity against Gingrich generally take this form.

Why might the personal conduct of a politician be relevant to his holding a position of public trust? I can think of three basic reasons:

First, we might believe that the behavior is bad in and of itself. Certainly few believe that infidelity is a good thing, and it is equally valid to criticize a politician for his behavior as it is for any other member of our society. But people do not generally lose their jobs for infidelities or other personal transgressions (unless, as noted, they are illegal or represent an abuse of institutional trust).

So arguments that the behavior is bad depend on the second reason we might care about personal integrity: a belief that public figures should set virtuous examples for the rest of us. Politicians are our leaders and stand, for better or worse, as examples to the rest of society. In this way, they are like our religious leaders and our sports stars, people to whom we look as role models. Under this theory, it would be reasonable and indeed necessary to hold political figures to a higher code of personal conduct than we hold ourselves. Part of what it means to be a leader is to commit to a life of virtue, and relatedly, to accept a higher level of public scrutiny. Justified or not, this public belief helps explain the outrage that accompanied the discovery that baseball players used steroids (and the widespread admiration for stars like Michael Jordan or Cal Ripken Jr. who were excellent athletes, teammates and citizens).

The leaders we most admire, in other words, are virtuous in all areas of their life. It seems plausible that virtuous behavior in personal affairs may bespeak virtuous behavior in other arenas. This is the third reason we might care about personal integrity: because it is a leading indicator of ideological integrity or integrity in the conduct of our affairs more broadly. He who cheats on his wife is more likely to lie, to deceive, to be faithless to his convictions or betray his supporters. Conversely, a man of personal integrity is likely to be honest in his dealings, to command respect among his peers, to bring sound moral judgment to difficult political decisions. If we believe that people are consistent in their behavior across all the spheres of their life, or even that behavior in one sphere can even imperfectly predict behavior in others, this view holds great weight.

All three of these arguments for personal integrity – (a) because it matters absolutely, (b) because leaders should lead by example; and (c) because it indicates a more general disposition — have substantial intuitive appeal. Offered the choice of a leader with integrity and a leader without integrity, the choice is not particularly difficult.

Unfortunately, that’s rarely the choice we face. Instead we have flawed leaders – imperfect men and women born in an imperfect society. The more interesting question becomes: what trade-offs will we accept?

Let’s take a few historical examples. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, widely regarded as the greatest president of the 20th century, had a long-term affair with his secretary. President Kennedy famously cheated on Jackie with a long parade of women. Should we have voted these men out of office? Would America be a better place if FDR had been banished by the public for cheating on Eleanor? If Kennedy had been publicly excoriated for his infidelities?

The case becomes even more complicated if we imagine a situation where personal integrity could be a liability in politics. Being resolutely honest may make it difficult to operate in our complex political environment; a capacity to make compromises amidst many warring parties may require a certain flexibility of approach, a willingness to hedge if not to lie outright.

We don’t have to go that far to ask the more basic question: if a politician is capable of executing – of making deals, of passing legislation that we deem socially important, of Getting Things Done – will we forgive his sins? Should we forgive them? The real question is ultimately about our values – what is the most important role of our democratic leaders? To guide us in our personal lives? Or to make sure our government best serves the people?

Readers, let me know your thoughts; these seem like difficult questions and I’m interested to hear other perspectives. Meanwhile, in my next post, I’ll connect personal integrity to political integrity, and expand the question: are our politics best served by an unwavering commitment to any ideal?