Politicians and Privacy

Politicians and Privacy

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Sept. 23 1998 3:30 AM

Politicians and Privacy

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Dear Professor Nagel,

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       I have been arguing about this (with myself, among others) for two decades. Nineteen years ago I even lost my job for a couple weeks in a dispute over whether the New Republic, of which I was then editor, would publish an article about Ted Kennedy's philandering. I lost, but in the long run my side has won--just in time to destroy the first presidency of my adult lifetime about which I was truly enthusiastic. So thank you for helping me to think this through again.
       My argument has been that the private lives of politicians are often fair game for three reasons:
       First, hypocrisy. Politicians don't really attempt to keep their private lives private. They don't say: "Stay away from my wife. Don't take pictures of me playing with my kids or talking to the minister on my way out of church. My private life is nobody else's business." They do not insist on the importance of maintaining separate public and private spheres, as you do in your article. Instead, they present an image of their private lives that may or may not be accurate. If it is not accurate, they are in essence lying to the voters. And if they'll lie about one thing, they'll lie about others--which is something voters are entitled to know.
       Second, exploitation. The typical "politician's private life" story involves a married male politician carrying on with a much younger woman in a relationship that basically trades use of her body for a brief sharing of his aura of power or glamour. Even if the particular woman involved is perfectly satisfied with the bargain--even if both women, the wife included, are satisfied with their bargains--this behavior suggests that the politician has a crass (are we still allowed to say "unliberated"?) view of women. And more: It suggests by implication an exploitative attitude toward people in general. A willingness to use people like this--and to use your official position to use people--is also something voters are entitled to know about.
       Third, democracy. Never mind what I think--or even what you think, Professor. The proper test for a journalist trying to decide whether to publish some information about a politician's private life is not whether it is politically relevant in his or her own judgment but whether it is politically relevant in the judgment of his or her readers. (Not merely interesting--that's too easy--but politically relevant.) And my assumption for most of the past two decades has been that most people do find a politician's adultery a legitimate factor in casting their votes, even if I and my friends might believe it doesn't matter. In fact (I have often asserted), people who believe that this stuff should stay private are motivated more by other people's interest than by their own indifference. They want to deny people information because people will use it to reach the wrong conclusion. And that's anti-democratic.
       How have two decades and Bill Clinton affected this line of thought? I suppose I've absorbed some of the usual lessons of middle age, which can be summarized as "life is more complicated than I realized." Hypocrisy isn't the world's worst sin. There are reasons one might want to keep, say, adultery private other than concern that people will vote the wrong way. And so on.
       As for Clinton, let's take my three points one by one. First, it's too bad that he'll be best remembered for lying about adultery, since he actually, for a while, came closer than any national politician ever has to saying, "I make no great claims about my private life, so don't call me a hypocrite for failing to meet my own standards." In the '92 campaign, he admitted to a "flawed" marriage and, implicitly, to screwing around. Unfortunately, he also implied the flaws were repaired. (And I believed him!)
       Second, in terms of what a style of sexual activity says about a person's attitude toward women and people in general, Clinton looks very bad. It's tempting to say that his exploitative sexual habits expose his famous human empathy as a complete fraud. But I think that's too hard: Don't forget, life is complicated. Still, for an admirer, it's dismaying.
       On Point 3, I seem to have got it utterly backward. My notion was that we media sophisticates and inside-the-Beltway types could shrug off private sexual indiscretions like adultery, but we had no right to deny information to the masses of people "out there" who did not shrug it off. With Flytrap, though, Outside the Beltway is where folks are shrugging it off, and Inside the Beltway is aflame with righteous moralism. And I suppose that if most people really don't care about it, it's no longer elitist and anti-democratic not to tell them about it.
       So I guess my bottom line has moved a bit in your direction. I wouldn't, for example, have published the story about Henry Hyde's ancient affair. Still, I ask: Do my three points not pierce your two spheres at all?
       Is there no circumstance where the contradiction between a politician's public actions and her private life negates her right to privacy? A notorious gay basher who's gay? A war hawk who dodged the draft? A champion of "volunteerism" who never volunteers and gives nothing to charity? What about a simple false résumé--falsely claiming military decorations or other admirable achievements?
       Short of actual unlawful sexual harassment or rape, do a person's sexual practices never reveal anything worth knowing in deciding whether that person is worthy of public office? Case study: Bill Clinton ...?
       Would you agree that it's wrong to deny people information they would find useful in the democratic process just because you don't think they ought to find it useful?
       Thanks again for participating. Over to you.

Mike K.