Sunday, March 30, 2008

The New Normal?



The resignation of New York Governor Elliot Spitzer, the perjury charge facing Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and the admissions of extra marital affairs and illegal drug use by new Empire State Governor David Paterson are all examples of personal, private failings of public officials.

In Spitzer's case, the revelation cost him his job. In Kilpatrick's case, it still could. In Paterson's case, it merely raised eyebrows. But each case raises if not new -- still, unseemly and uncomfortable questions about what the public has the right to know about their private lives of their politicians.

As a wide-open race for Governor ramps up in Missouri, I wonder what's fair game and relevant. Is it fair to ask the candidates if they've ever used illegal drugs? What about if they've engaged in any illegal behavior at all? And how about the sticky but raw issue of adultery?

One argument is that things that go on behind closed doors that don't impact the business of government are none of our business. But in Spitzer's case, it wasn't just the sex with a call girl. It was the hypocrisy. It's the fact that his career was in part built upon taking down prostitution rings. So, if a candidate stresses family values as a campaign issue, is it more relevant to ask that candidate about his or her personal family issues?

This is not a pleasant question. It's thorny, icky and tawdry. But what's the standard? If the question is par for the course for a politician in New York, is it a pertinent question here?

One could make the case that Missouri isn't New York -- that we (the media, the pols, the people) conduct ourselves differently. But I'd bet a story on a candidate's drug use or sex life would receive more TV views and web hits than a story on the pros and cons of phase two of Insure Missouri.

You could also argue that in the end, elections aren't about issues -- they are about personality, leadership and character. So in that respect, maybe these questions are not only relevant -- but important? If a candidate is willing to lie to his wife, does that make him less likely to follow through on his plan to "end illegal immigration" or provide universal health care? I'm not sure.

Then, there's the question of the standard. Does an Attorney General candidate deserve the same personal scrutiny as a city councilman or state representative? Nobody cares if "candidate A" smoked some pot back in college. But once it was revealed or acknowledged -- would they?

In the end, if these questions are asked, the biggest backlash could be against the journalist who asks the question. Inevitably, one portion of the public would cry foul. Outrage would permeate out of partisans. And in fairness, there would be some regular folks that would feel uncomfortable about the whole thing.

In testing the worthiness of these questions with some of my friends, I received mix reviews. Some said they didn't think it was fair to ask politicians questions that they themselves would be uncomfortable responding to. Others said it would depend on the wording of the question.

I write all this because I'm not exactly sure of the answer. But I do believe its the role of the media with a hand from the public to figure out what's in and out of bounds -- what's appropriate and what's not -- as we decide on the issues and questions to frame the coming campaign around.

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