For as long as I can remember, election time has been called the “silly season.” It’s that time of year when political posturing on issues wins out over substantive thought and discourse. It’s when fundraising, finger-pointing and outpolling your opponents are the ultimate priority over real answers and strategies to fix real problems.
In short, that time is now.
In watching what seems to have been an endless series of GOP presidential candidate debates and all of the insinuations and direct and indirect names that they call one another, it struck me how different politics is today from 25 years ago.
In 1987, then U.S. Sen. Gary Hart, D-Colo., was the front runner for the Democratic nomination for president. He was on a fairly clear trajectory to getting that prized spot on the top of the presidential ticket when a weekend on a boat called “Monkey Business” with a woman who was not his wife sank his White House aspirations. The famous photo of Donna Rice on his lap while he was wearing a white T-shirt emblazoned with “Monkey Business Crew” across the front was a political opposition research gold mine that literally dropped jaws. The charges and insinuations of adultery made Hart appear to be untrustworthy on multiple levels, especially after he had dared reporters to put a tail on him and follow him around because he had nothing to hide.
Five years later, a multi-term governor from Arkansas running for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination had similar adultery accusations made about him. Termed as “bimbo eruptions” by his then Chief of Staff, Betsey Wright, then-Gov. Bill Clinton would weather the whispers, accusations, audio recordings, interviews and even centerfold photos (Gennifer Flowers) to raise his right hand and be sworn in as the 42nd president of the United States. Years later he would angrily declare that he did not have “sexual relations with ‘that’ woman,” but embarrassing facts would reveal the truth that would cause him to be impeached.
Adultery, an act still punishable by death in several Middle Eastern countries, has more than sunk its share of political campaigns, but it now just seems to be blip on the road toward electoral success.
Even after the salacious charges of an angered ex-wife who accused him of wanting an “open marriage,” former U.S. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich went on to win the South Carolina Primary by a landslide.
So does “monkey business” matter anymore when we look to selecting our nation’s top leader?
The American presidency has had more than its share of imperfect characters occupying the White House. There have been the completely incompetent (James Buchanan); the distraught, moody drunk (Franklin Pierce); and the ethically corrupt (Richard Nixon, Warren Harding).
We’ve even recently learned how a less than chaste President John F. Kennedy, even at the most tension-filled moments of the Cold War carried on with a college aged intern for years during his time of office.
So does any of this type of behavior matter?
Despite all that we know about JFK and his legendary philandering, he is consistently ranked by the public and historians among the top tier of ranked presidents. Even FDR, the longest serving U.S. president, who led the United States through the Depression and World War II had a mistress, who was even with him when he died in Warm Springs, GA.
The character debate comes up when voters consider candidates for every office from president to dog-catcher. People are looking for leaders that they can not only connect with on issues of interest but also trust to behave themselves or at least keep their acts together.
In terms of adultery or “fooling around” with someone other than your spouse, such conduct is literally grounds for court martial in the military as well as potential loss of security clearance in the intelligence or government sectors. For those positions, standards are purposely set very high for very good reason, given the responsibilities with which they are entrusted, and adultery by its very conduct is a compromising position.
In today’s much more liberated (and some would say tolerant) world, the attitudes people have about such behavior are not what they once were. Today people seem to be much more accepting, if not forgiving of it when it occurs (or rather is revealed). When a public person is caught in such a situation today it’s not unusual to hear phrases such as, “Well, everyone does it …” or “Big deal. It’s nobody’s business.”
Unfortunately, it is a big deal, and it is certainly worth knowing about if the position you are considering a person for (through election or selection), could be “compromised” by less than appropriate behavior.
In looking through the recently revealed history of our presidents, it is absolutely shocking to me that FDR could carry on like that during the various crises he had to deal with, but JFK’s recklessness is what is truly mind-blowing. The sheer cavalier carelessness of Kennedy’s libido during some of the Cold War’s most challenging circumstances put more than his marriage at risk. It put the security of the country at unimaginable risk. It was bad enough for him to disrespect his vows to his wife and family, but if his reckless conduct had been used by the then-Soviet Union, the oath of office he took could have been compromised, to disastrous effect.
That’s a basic point that is driven home by security specialists at all levels, but one somehow disregarded by Kennedy, then the most powerful person in the world, and the staff around him.
History offers us powerful lessons of what worked and what didn’t. It also allows us to play “what if” games that spur countless debates and scholarly analyses of the “woulda, coulda and shouldas” of history. As interesting as they may be, these types of debates need to remain fresh and vibrant whenever an electorate is deciding on whom should be entrusted with the most powerful of responsibilities.
For decades, presidential memoirs have revealed that holding the nuclear weapons codes that can wipe out life on the planet is not anything any president ever enjoyed. In fact it is the one responsibility they were happiest to give to their successors when their terms of office expired.
Having the character, though, to make the most crucial of decisions is essential for anyone who holds the most powerful position in the world. Part of that involves self-restraint as well as self-respect. It also involves loyalty to the people who are part of your life. If you can throw that away for personal selfishness and short-term benefits, something tells me you might just throw a few other things to the side as well, and no country should have to bear those risks.
Character does count, and there is no monkeying around with that fact.