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As new allegations against Herman Cain emerge, the nagging question about politicians and sexual misconduct come to the fore: Does it matter if Cain had an affair? Do those in office, or those seeking office, actually behave worse than the rest of us? Does it really matter if they do? Could
Photo: Linda Davidson/The Post
WASHINGTON, DC – OCTOBER 31: Herman Cain, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, at the National Press Club in Washington, DC on October 31, 2011. Allegations surfaced that during Herman Cain’s tenure as the head of the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s, at least two female employees complained to colleagues and senior association officials about inappropriate behavior by Cain.
it be that we simply pay more attention when they do, and if so, why do we do so?
Knowing of no rigorous study of the sexual misdeeds of politicians and those seeking elected office, I don’t think we can say that such people are more likely to commit such misdeeds. But I understand why they might — I understand, but I do not excuse. I can imagine that there is a relationship between the kind of personality that ignores personal limits, and simply believes that whatever or whoever is out there is for theirs for the taking, and the self-confidence of a person bold enough to run for office. That confidence may sometimes not only tempt them towards adultery but may also draw thousands of people to them.
Each is a kind of hubris, and sometimes it’s channeled well and sometimes not. When it’s the former, it may express itself with a leap into public service, and when not, into a leap into private sexual misconduct. So maybe pols do behave worse than the rest of us. But even if they do, does it really matter?
Does a person’s private misconduct really invalidate their potential value as public servants? I am not talking about the lies and the cover-ups which follow such events – those are public misdeeds which demonstrate an office holder’s or a candidate’s ability to address their public honestly. I am talking about the fact that there may be far less connection between private ethics and public ethics than we typically assume.
I appreciate that we demand sexual morality from our politicians because sexual morality is, we presume, a good predictor of trustworthiness. But is it? Isn’t history filled with stories of great leaders who found maintaining monogamy a challenge?
History is filled with the stories of people who accomplished great good for the larger public despite having personal lives that were pretty bad. A list of such people might begin with Moses, JFK, MLK Jr. I could go on, but that list gives a sense of how the problem crosses eras, spiritual traditions and geographic boundaries.
Why can we not accept that people may be masterful public servants even if they may be failures in private life? Isn’t that how it works with all of us – good at some things and poor at others, sensitive to some issues and completely blind to others? Why should it be any different with public servants?
That we seem to hold people in politics to a different standard may well say more about us than it does about them or the job which we entrust them to do.
For starters, politicians’ lives are already very public so we feel entitled to know about pretty much every part of their lives, and because people love sexual stories, the lives of politicians are an easy mark. Then there is the fact that it’s always easier to focus on someone else’s misdeeds than our own, especially if they are famous. We love celebrities, but part of the current obsession with celebrities is seeing them fall from grace; it seems to make people who are not famous feel better about themselves.
Ultimately, I think that we demand sexual morality from our politicians, not because it means that they will be better politicians, but because we can do so with relative ease, and because it makes us feel better about ourselves. That doesn’t mean that sexual misconduct is okay. And in the case of alleged sexual harassment, we should pursue any claim that is even remotely credible, especially given how underreported such crimes are.
By being more realistic about people’s failings, and by creating a culture which reacts to stories of sexual impropriety in a way that less resembles a feeding frenzy by sharks, we might get politicians who waste no time pretending to be ideal, and simply do a better job of being real — failings and all — leaving us to focus on whether or not they can do the job which they are elected to do.