Private vices, public vices

Jon Corzine greets future voters.I was deeply disturbed by the views expressed by Gail Collins in a recent column in the New York Times entitled “No Sex Please, We’re American Voters”1.Drawing on the outcome of the governor’s race in New Jersey won by aDemocrat Senator publicly accused by his ex-wife of adultery, Collinsinfers that American voters are indifferent to the sexual behaviour oftheir public officials. She then goes on to cite a string of celebratedcases such as those of Roosevelt, Kennedy and Clinton as proof that“great public leadership and domestic fidelity do not really go hand inhand”. She even implies that the irrelevance of private sexualmisconduct for public office has been a long-standing tradition goingback to the times of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. Towardsthe end of her column she manifests her hope that American voters be atleast as indulgent if and when the sexual impropriety involves femalecandidates.

I don’t think that indifference towards improper sexual behaviour is aconclusion one could draw from the New Jersey polls. It wasn’t areferendum on that particular issue. Any inference would have to be abit more nuanced. All things considered, perhaps New Jersey votersstill thought that Senator Jon Corzine would be a better governor thanhis Republican opponent, Douglas Forrester. I cannot imagine “being analleged adulterer” figuring  in any candidate’s campaignmaterials. After all, adultery is still a crime in some states,although hardly prosecuted and difficult to prove. At most, it istreated as a minor misdemeanour and grounds for divorce.

As for the claim that faithfulness to one’s spouse hasn’t really been adistinguishing trait of great American leaders, we would do well byrequiring something more than anecdotal evidence. A consensus wouldfirst have to be reached regarding “great leadership” followed by acareful historical scrutiny of the lives of public officials whopurportedly qualify. Although one could not deny that people unfaithfulto their marriage vows could be excellent leaders, that would bedespite and not because of their lack of loyalty.

What I found most troubling is the incoherence between the demands ofunquestionable integrity from elected public officials, on the onehand, and the pressure to ignore their fidelity to marriage oaths, onthe other. It’s as if honesty and truthfulness were virtues to be livedexclusively in money-matters, in business dealings and taxes, forexample, and rightfully neglected in other more personal relationships,involving love, sex and family. As character traits, virtues accompanyone wherever he goes; they’re not the kind of thing that could be livedprivately at home, but not publicly in the workplace. To do otherwiseis not a sign of maturity or enlightenment, just plain double-dealing.

And lastly, I don’t think women’s welfare or status will at all improveif marital faithfulness are not to count when running for publicoffice. That would be too condescending on the part of men. Just liketheir male counterparts, female candidates also need to live thevirtues which are the true measure of human flourishing.

Dr Alejo Sison holds the Rafael Escolá Chair of Professional Ethics at the University of Navarra in Spain.

(1) Gail Collins. “No Sex Please, We’re American Voters”. New York Times. Nov 15, 2005.


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