Tuesday, June 07, 2011

What Have We Learned About Scandals?

Either character matters for all of us all of the time, or it doesn't.  Those are the only two options. Keep this in mind as we sample both current events and history.  (I am aware that those two rarely appear in the same room together).
Currently, the media is enjoying the term Weinergate as if they were third graders who have learned a new swear word.  Press from all points of the political spectrum are giving thanks to the media gods that the politician caught in the latest sex scandal is named Weiner.  No one is going for the high ground on this one - not even Wolf Blitzer.

As many expected, the news broke that Rep. Weiner lied to us.  He has confessed.  At first he said, "I did not tweet that woman in Washington State." The implication was that we should all be ashamed for not readily accepting the explanation as first given.  Now he admits that the relationship was inappropriate.  Reporters are telling us that his wife is the strong one.  We are learning more about her and we are drawn to feel sympathy for a good woman who does not deserve the shame that her husband has brought upon her with his indiscretions.

Now hold on, we've been to this show before haven't we?  There is an uncanny parallel to1998 and President Clinton's terse remark: "I did not have sexual relations with that woman."  The similarities are so close that I wonder if Wiener is honestly trying to imitate Bill Clinton.  That or there is a secret politicians' handbook that lays out a strategy for getting caught in scandals. (A better strategy for 2011 might be "Don't Tweet!")

In both 1998 and 2011, the accused politician denies the charges.  In both events, the politician tries to end the story by asserting that he has to get back to work for the electorate and doesn't have time to justify muckraking.  Both times, the indignant statesman who scolded the press for playing games apologized and confessed to dishonesty.

It's oddly similar, except that this time there seems to be a different approach to the issue of character.  In 1998, Clinton's supporters and leading members of his party argued that the President's record mattered more than his private affairs.  We were also informed of a "vast right wing conspiracy" that was behind the trumped up charges.  Even after Clinton admitted to much more that "tweeting," his supporters still rallied to his side and held hands singing hymns.  But now in 2011, some of those very same people are demanding a full investigation of Anthony Weiner.  Why?

It may be political expediency.  One could argue, and many have, that Democrats support of Pres. Clinton during the scandal ultimately led to Al Gore's lack of support in the 2000 election.  Perhaps crafty Democrats have concluded that it is better to cast aside scandal-ridden colleagues for the greater good of the party.

Daring to be less cynical, I wonder if this may also be a glimmer of hope that our world has learned something about character.  In 1998, it was common to see a "person-on-the-street" comment that the President's personal life has no bearing on his job performance.  In the 1990's character was deemed less important than job performance.  Furthermore, some open-minded souls chastised Americans for being parochial and it was indicated that European politicians have many mistresses and indiscretions and no one is truly the worse for it.  Really?  Fast forward to 2011 and between Monicagate and Weinergate we have grown weary and felt the pain of the ribald tales of Tiger Woods, John Edwards, and Arnold Schwarzenegger to name a few.  And we aren't too patient with European officials engaging in extra-marital dalliances when they chase housekeeping through a hotel.  Those are just the sex scandals.  Financial scandals and abuse of power scandals all have something in common with the sex scandals: we are lied to and bystanders get hurt and in some cases killed.  We just might be recognizing connections between character and performance of duties now that we have felt the consequences of dishonesty, arrogance, and irresponsibility.

Of course there is another conversation we should have about how we respond to lapses in character.  We can be compassionate, forgiving, and gracious without relaxing high expectations.  We can be humble even as we are insist on reconciliation and repentance.  Dramatic and endless reporting that smacks of gossip is less than noble and too often adds to the pain and shame.  We can be more discreet without sweeping matters beneath the carpet.  I want to believe that we can get back to insistence on character regardless of how popular, how powerful, and how clever one is.  Likewise, regardless of how one is politically aligned.

So perhaps, just perhaps, we are doing away with the broken philosophy that a politician's character doesn't matter as long as he or she does a great job.  Perhaps it isn't old-fashioned to expect that simple things like honesty and self-control matter to all of us.  I must caution however that there is this unrelenting quality to character: it demands consistency.  If we demand good character of our officials, then we must demand it of ourselves.  Either character matters for all of us all of the time, or it doesn't.  Those are the only two options.

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