We live in the Age of the Keyhole. Reporters stake out the townhouse of Gary Hart, the Democratic party front-runner, desperately hoping to catch him with a woman. The resulting headlines impugn reputations and derail a presidential bid. Victimized by a power struggle within a ministry, a church secretary sees her name bandied throughout the world because she had a dalliance with television evangelist Jim Bakker years before.
Breathless: Not to be outdone in the keyhole sweepstakes, Canadian journalists breathlessly announce to a waiting world the private decorating bills of Mila Mulroney. Typically Canadian, our media concentrates on money, not sex, but the result is the same. Sniggering replaces debate. Gossip overrules analysis. Trivia abounds. Substance sinks.
Tragedy: Gary Hart’s withdrawal from the presidential race is a personal tragedy, but beyond the immediate impact on American politics the incident does carry larger meaning.
What is the relationship between private morality and public responsibility? Is it anyone’s business except Gary Hart’s whom he invites for dinner? Does any politician have a right to privacy? Perhaps most important, does this relentless pandering of the press to the public’s prurient interest have implications for our democratic system? The first basic issue concerns the proper standards to apply to our leaders. To be a good politician, must one be a moral individual? The instinctive answer is yes. Jimmy Carter, as virtuous a citizen as ever campaigned for the presidency, made it a central theme that public and private morality should be the same. In Why Not The Best?, Carter wrote that even foreign policy must rest on the same moral standards “which are characteristic of the individual citizens.”
But I believe it i,s a mistake to confuse the morality of individuals and the morality of states, a distinction powerfully made by Reinhold Niebuhr, the 20th century’s foremost theologian, half a century ago. Citing the Gospels,
Niebuhr stressed that the highest moral calling is unselfishness. “The individual must strive to realize his life by losing and finding himself in something greater than himself,” he wrote.
What is appropriate for the individual, however, is miscast for the community. A democratic ruler is simply
an agent for others. How can an individual, who is responsible for the wellbeing of millions, justify the sacrifice of interests other than his own? “The Sermon on the Mount,” said Winston Churchill, “is the last word in Christian ethics. Still, it is not on those terms that ministers assume their responsibilities of guiding states.”
Ideals: Sacrifice and unselfishness are the ideals for individuals, but justice and preservation of the community must be the pre-eminent values for the polity. The standards we apply to leaders should only be those that are
relevant to the function of their public duties. Vision, decisiveness, eloquence and intelligence are critical in providing leadership, but sexual fidelity, abstinence from drink, or other matters of private conscience are of lesser consequence in guiding the state. Sir John A. Macdonald, for example, had a serious drinking problem, but better Sir John A. drunk than George Brown sober. Leaders must answer to their Maker for their personal sins, but they should not have to answer to the electorate.
Private actions, then, should only be matters for the public domain if they impede the performance of public duties. The public has a right to know, but not to snoop. Privacy is an individual right. Politicians should not have to give it up because they run for office. The Mulroneys, for example, had the perfect right to decorate their home in any fashion they chose, as long as they used private resources. Publishing their bills and investigating their closets was an invasion of privacy, pure and simple. Mania: If one accepts I the argument that there j is a sphere of private i behavior unrelated to I public duty that should z be protected, what is be£ hind this media mania to expose all? At its most sanctimonious, the press defends its invasion of privacy by proclaiming that private actions are a reflection of character and thus relevant to public performance. Certainly sexual immorality or excessive indulgence in spirits is a reflection of character, but not characteristics relevant to the central political tasks of leadership. In a dual system of morality they weigh on the individual, not the public, side of the ledger. Far more relevant is an individual’s stand on the issues of the day, but how many newspapers are interested in Gary Hart’s position on the national debt
as opposed to his choice of dinner partner?
The truth of the matter is that the media is ravenous because the public is interested and the public is interested because we like to be titillated. Each of us responds to leaders in a curious bifurcated way. Heroes inspire. Their example lifts us beyond our daily pursuits; we strive to attain the unattainable because for a brief moment we have suspended disbelief.
Human: Yet what we build up, we love to tear down. Because we are only human, all of us sin.
Knowing our own imperfections, we want the satisfaction of learning about the sins of others, especially those of the mighty. Public pleasure, however, is not a sufficient reason for illegitimate activity to continue.
Public executions and bear baiting were enjoyed too. The fact is that all of us are paying a terrible price for the public’s love of dirt and the media’s eagerness to find it. Our system of democracy is beginning to run dry of the very ingredient most necessary for its functioning—dedicated men and women willing to give up the attractions and anonymity of private life for the rigors and scrutiny of public office.
Professional politics is not an especially favored occupation. Parents would like their children to grow up to be Prime Minister, but few want them to be politicians first. Canada is fortunate to attract a high calibre of women and men who want to serve. Despite what cynics believe, federal politics is not an easy life. The pay is adequate but not grand. The hours are crushing. The commuting back and forth to the constituency takes an enormous personal toll, especially for members from the West, North and the Atlantic provinces. Family life suffers. To survive, let alone thrive, an MP needs a real sense of public commitment to balance the disabilities of the job.
Fundamental: Press invasion of privacy threatens to tip that balance in a fundamental way, for not only do candidates come under intense scrutiny but so do their families. What family does not have a personal hurt which is theirs alone to endure—a child on drugs, a business deal gone sour, a love affair gone cold? By what right does
the world have to know? Why should loved ones be put through a wringer? The case of Mario Cuomo is instructive. Gov. Cuomo of New York is one of the stars of his country’s political firmament. He shocked the Democratic party by refusing to run for President in 1988. The sad history of his fellow New Yorker, Geraldine Ferraro, may have had something to do with his decision. Ferraro was a former prosecu-
tor and an accomplished member of the U.S. Congress. After being catapulted to fame in 1984 by becoming the first woman candidate for Vice-President, her career was rocked by one
press sensation after another. Her husband was indicted. Her children received notoriety. Even her dead father was investigated and accused of being a Mafioso. The grave itself did not inhibit the scavengers. Gov. Cuomo probably asked himself, who needs it?
Author: Gary Hart is a graduate of Yale. He is a former U.S. senator. He is the author of two novels and several books on public policy. Yet he was
treated like a criminal, his home staked out, his family and a woman volunteer subjected to speculation and innuendo, all in the name of press freedom. The media defends its actions by saying that it must probe the character of those who run for office. The aim of such investigation, it piously claims, is good government, not higher circulation. But every such incident guarantees that the quality of public life will suffer. By invading privacy and applying inappropriate standards, the press drives out the best and then wonders why only mediocrity remains.
Politics can be the noblest of adventures. We can make it so only by raising our sights from the compost heap.
-THOMAS S. AXWORTHY
Thomas S. Axworthy was formerly principal secretary to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and is now vice-president of the Montreal-based Charles R. Bronfman Foundation and a part-time lecturer at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs.
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