Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Public Official Privacy

The media loves anything that smacks of salaciousness because it sells well. Demand for titillating and scandalous content is obviously quite high among news consumers. Fortunately for these consumers, people that have chosen to live in the public light frequently supply plenty of this kind of material.

Among those that have made recent headlines is South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford. While Sanford said this week in AP interviews that he was witnessing his “own political funeral,” he seemed to be doing everything in his power to keep his extramarital affair — the impetus for his professional demise — front and center in the national news cycle until this afternoon when it was announced that he was done baring his soul.

The man claims he is trying to “fall back in love with his wife” even while wistfully recalling his love affair with his “soul mate” mistress. This kind of talk makes me want to vomit. Sanford appears determined to depict himself as a caricature of a figure in a cheap romance novel.

The more Sanford talks about this matter, the more bizarre he looks. Some guys go out on the town with ‘the boys’ to carouse. Sanford admits to taking trips outside of the country with ‘the boys’ to do so. The whole world now knows that among the ways Sanford unwinds is to dig holes in his property with heavy excavating equipment and to leave the country to flirt with foreign women.

Yes, lots of powerful men philander and adulterate. But this is more than a simple boys-will-be-boys story. This kind of behavior is not close to normal. That’s one of the reasons that it makes news. But the fact that this guy is a powerful politician — a governor that until recently appeared to have a shot at the presidency — enhances its newsworthiness. The fact that he’s an unabashed conservative piques the interest even more.

Sanford has earned the ire of just about every stripe of conservative out there because his behavior reflects badly on their various causes. Fiscal conservatives are upset because Sanford has of late been perhaps the strongest advocate for fiscal conservatism in the nation. Sanford also seemed the image of a religious social conservative. Since adultery runs counter to such principles, social conservatives feel violated. As a captain in the Air Force reserves, Sanford appeared to be a strong supporter of national security, so security hawks feel betrayed.

Bob Lonsberry opined on his radio program this morning that it was none of the public’s business what Sanford or anyone else does behind bedroom doors, even if they are public officials. President Clinton’s peccadilloes, for example, should have been a purely private matter, said Lonsberry. The segment where Lonsberry mentioned this wasn’t very long, so he avoided mentioning any qualifiers. For example, would he still hold his assertion of privacy if said behavior involved illegal or unethical behavior? What if an underage person were involved?

I’ve heard others express a similar line of thought. The people of South Carolina are Sanford’s employer. The people of the U.S. were until recently his prospective employer. Does your employer or prospective employer have any right to know what goes on in your personal relationships? Do they have a right to know if you cheat on your spouse?

The law generally thinks not. Most of us have had co-workers whose job performance suffered through a period of relationship problems. In such cases, employers can address the performance issues, but bringing up the personal issues is usually off limits unless the employee asks for help. And then employers are required to keep the matter confidential.

Equating political leaders with employees, however, is problematic. One of the main reasons for rules restricting employers is the power differential between employer and employee. That dynamic is quite dissimilar when it comes to public officials. In this case, the governor holds far more power than any of his individual ‘employers.’

Even if the employee paradigm is accepted, there is a question about whether Gov. Sanford broke any laws or violated ethical constraints regarding the use of official resources. The people of SC have a right to question whether he is sufficiently fit to perform the duties of his office.

In most workplaces, any employee that engages in (even consensual) sexual conduct on company premises can expect to be fired. That’s one reason that Pres. Clinton’s misuse of the Oval Office raised problems. Similarly, there are also grounds for considering whether Sen. Ensign’s (R-NV) liaisons with one of his employees who was the wife of another of his employees exceeded ethical limits.

The world has changed a lot since the days of high profile philanderers like JFK. Historians can dig up many examples of leaders that performed their assignments well despite their personal infidelity. Consider Benjamin Franklin, for example. Is Lonsberry right? Does the public really have no right to information about the personal lives of public officials?

Like it or not, media access to people’s personal lives is more pervasive (and invasive) than ever. Couple this with the fact that some politicians use features of their personal lives as campaign material. Sanford certainly did so, as did John Edwards. Having chosen to deliberately insert personal relationship factors into the public debate, it is difficult to argue that they should be excluded from the public forum when they no longer work in the person’s favor.

The reality is that today’s job description for people embarking on a public career includes lack of privacy for the individual and his/her family and associates. This cost must be weighed when considering such a high profile occupation.

Does this cost us the service of individuals that could potentially do a great job? Undoubtedly. But more significantly, is there anything we can do about it? If so, is it something we should do?

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