Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Politicians and their peccadilloes

There's a well-known joke that came to mind today.

Two men, Mike and Tom, are having a beer in the local bar. Mike points out of the window.

"You see that bridge over there, Tom? I helped build that bridge with my own hands - but do they call me Mike the bridge-builder?"

"No, Mike, they don't," Tom says sympathetically.

"And you see that roof on the school? I helped put it up. It's a fine job - but do they call me Mike the roofer?"

"No, Mike, they don't," Tom acknowledges quietly.

Mike takes a pull at his beer, scowling fiercely. "But you shag one single sheep . . . "

We laugh, of course, but there's truth in the pathos.

I was musing today about how someone can do many good things - perhaps even great things - and be completely destroyed, have his reputation trashed forever, by one mistake. The reason for my musing, of course, was the downfall of the Governor of New York State, Eliot Spitzer, through his use of prostitutes.

I don't have much in common with Governor Spitzer politically, but I'll be the first to acknowledge it's unlikely that he alone out of all the politicians in New York State (or the rest of the country, for that matter) is guilty of this offence. I'm sure many others, on both sides of the political divide, are equally guilty. Nevertheless, Governor Spitzer broke the Eleventh Commandment - "Thou shalt not be found out" - and he must now pay the price.

As a political centrist, with a streak of conservatism, a dash of pragmatism and a whiff of libertarianism in my makeup, I'm saddened whenever someone destroys his or her career through such hubris. There's a common thread running through every case: a belief (perhaps not fully articulated even to or by themselves) that they're above the law or somehow "untouchable", so that they can escape the consequences of their actions. It applies in all nations and to politicians of every stripe. Consider:

  • The so-called "Profumo Affair". John Profumo was Minister of Defense in the Conservative Party government of Britain under Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. In 1963 his relationship with the prostitute Christine Keeler destroyed his career and was instrumental in the defeat of the Conservatives in the next general election. To make matters worse, Profumo lied to the House of Commons about his relationship with Keeler. His denials drew from Ms. Keeler the unforgettable. unanswerable retort, "Well, he would, wouldn't he?".
  • Watergate. Richard Nixon, Republican President of the United States from 1969-1974, tried to conceal the fact that the burglary of Democratic party offices had been carried out by operatives acting on his authority. His knowledge of the scandal, and the pressure he tried to exert on public officials to ensure it remained concealed, were inexcusable. In the end, of course, it destroyed his presidency. How on earth "Tricky Dicky" believed he could get away with it I'll never understand.
  • Gary Hart, Democratic presidential candidate in 1987. He countered rumours of an extra-marital affair by famously daring the news media to "follow him around". They did, and obtained photographic evidence of his infidelity. His campaign collapsed and his political career was destroyed.
  • Bill Clinton, former President of the United States from 1993-2000. His well-known "Zippergate" affair with Monica Lewinsky was merely the most publicized of a whole host of ethically, morally and legally questionable and ambiguous dealings involving himself and/or his wife (for example, Whitewater, Travelgate, various sex scandals, Presidential pardons, etc.), all of which have provided fodder for gossips for many years. His famous evasion, "That depends on what your definition of 'is' is”, sickened many (including myself). It was a perfect illustration of cynical, callous, unfeeling, uncaring political expediency. All the good he may have done as President has been forever eclipsed, and his reputation forever tarnished, by his mendacity. His main legacy to this nation has been to add a large number of new terms (most notably the verb "Lewinskied") to the American political lexicon.

There are many other politicians and political scandals one could cite - certainly far too many to include here. If you'd like to get an overview of them through US history, see here. Governor Spitzer is merely the latest in a long, long line of politicians who thought they were above the law and immune from the consequences of their actions. In every case outlined above, and in many others, the guilty parties expressed their contrition in some form. I'm sure I'm not alone in believing that the only "contrition" any of them felt was sorrow that their sins had been exposed.

It would be nice if we would make serious efforts to elect a better class of politician . . . but that's unlikely. We've been electing rogues and scoundrels for so long that I don't see it changing anytime soon. Too many voters just don't care, or allow their partisan political leanings to override their moral judgment - and that may be the saddest thing of all.

Perhaps, deep down, most of us are like the Pharisees, prepared to stone a sinner in public when he or she is exposed (John 8:7), but secretly guilty of the same or equally grave sins ourselves. Is the cure for our political malaise to be, "Let him who is without sin cast the first ballot"?


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