Public Office and Private Morality


photo credit: aurélien.

Just to be clear from the beginning, this topic is inspired by the Kevin Garn story and while I will refer to that story specifically everything I say is meant to apply to any matters of the private morality of a public official.

First, I would like to say that Rep. Garn seems to be dealing with this in the best way he knows how. Second, I agree with this comment on Holly’s site saying that we should:

hold our elected officials to the highest moral and ethical standards

Having said those things, I don’t believe that Rep. Garn’s problem is any of my business because he is not my representative. If he were my representative that would be another story.

If he were my representative then I would think it perfectly appropriate to ask whatever questions I felt necessary to determine who the issue should weigh in my voting decisions.  If he were my representative my position right now would be to thank him for his service and encourage him to step down and let someone else serve so that this issue could not hang like a cloud over the office that he had been entrusted with. That would be my position despite the fact that I believe this situation is not quite as salacious as it would appear to be at first glance (like if you read the headlines and not the rest of the story).

Because he is not my representative I consider this to be a matter between him and his constituents. My interest in the story should go no further than to wonder if my representative was among those who gave him a standing ovation and if she was, to ask her why she would do that. Personally I think the appropriate response to hearing a colleague read that kind of prepared statement should be shocked silence, certainly not a standing ovation.

11 comments for “Public Office and Private Morality

  1. Laura Miller
    March 12, 2010 at 3:24 pm

    I agree. Standing ovation? Hmmm.

    As I read the story in the news and the comments, my biggest thought was . . . “If this is a person willing to cover-up, whether or not it was eight years ago or within or without the time frame to be reported; does this seem like a moral person whom I would desire to have helping make decisions for me? Does his judgment, morality and decisions in the past in personal or public life reflect the way I think someone entrusted to make lasting decisions for others should behave?

    The answer to these questions is absolutely no.

    That being said, I’m not sure I understand the phrase ‘stand down because of the cloud over his office’ comment. I’ve never understood that one. Are you saying the same thing I am?

    • March 12, 2010 at 6:51 pm

      We’re not saying the same thing. This took place 25 years ago and so far as I am able to judge from the outside Rep. Garn has dealt with it in a relatively open and honest way. You can argue about the non-disclosure agreement but the argument can be made that a non-disclosure agreement is appropriate insole cases. My point being that I accept the very real possibility that Rep. Garn is capable of making wise and moral choices. The cloud over the office that I was referring to is the fact that our elected officials deal with very difficult problems and anything that can and will be used as a distraction only makes their task more difficult. There are undoubtedly other people in his district capable of tackling those issues who would not have such a distraction around toake the job more challenging than it needs to be.

  2. Charles D
    March 12, 2010 at 4:53 pm

    I an ideal world, Rep. Garn would not have been able to be blackmailed by this woman because no one would care about his private life other than his friends and family. But we don’t live in that world, we live in a world where politicians are celebrities and our political polarization makes it inevitable that an opponent will unearth any moral faux pas in an effort to tarnish the image of his opponent.

    Frankly, I’m a lot less concerned with marital infidelity or gender identity confusion in my legislators, than in their relationships with lobbyists for those with business before the government. If we paid half as much attention to the relationships between our legislators (or their family and staff) and lobbyists, corporate bigwigs, and government contractors as we do to their personal sexual proclivities we would be a great deal better off.

    • March 12, 2010 at 6:54 pm

      I disagree that in an ideal world only family and close friends would care about the private actions of a public official. I would instead say that in an ideal world people would know when to leave the past in the past and when that past has any bearing on the task at hand.

  3. Charles D
    March 12, 2010 at 7:08 pm

    I wasn’t referring specifically to Garn, but the reason public officials are distracted by these personal indiscretions is that their personal lives are considered fair game by the press and their potential opponents. We have had many great political leaders in this nation whose personal lives would not have withstood public scrutiny. We have also had our share of eminently moral and chaste politicians who were abject failures in their chosen career.

    • March 12, 2010 at 11:37 pm

      The problem as I see it is not simply that the elected officials that are distracted but the public as well. The question of how much weight to give to private morality is up to the individual voters. It’s true that a person can be an accomplished politician while making a mess of their personal life, and it’s also true that a person can have an impeccable personal life while lacking any political skill, neither of those facts renders it inappropriate for voters
      To consider the private morality of the candidates when casting their votes.

  4. Charles D
    March 13, 2010 at 6:48 am

    The public is distracted because the media are eager to share the juicy gossip. This is a relatively new phenomenon and IMHO is a result of the increased polarization of the electorate. The poster boy for this is usually JFK who was obviously carrying on affairs but the media simply ignored them as irrelevant to his actions as Senator or President, as did the loyal opposition (who probably had as many skeletons in their own closets). When the next philanderer of note came into the oval office, the opposition worked overtime to find an example of his adultery in order to destroy him politically. There was a sea change in attitude between those two Presidencies.

    We never considered the private morality of most of our officials because we simply never knew about it unless they were caught in the act in situations where the message could not be controlled. Remember Wilbur Mills? The current obsession with the private pecadillos of the political class stems from two changes in our culture: the dramatically increased polarization between the two parties and the rise of a form of religion that emphasizes a “holier than thou” attitude over one of “there but for the grace of God go I”.

    • March 13, 2010 at 11:54 am

      It’s true that the public gets distracted largely because the media covers such distractions but which is easier: finding another person able to fill an office or getting the media and public to ignore these issues? (Perhaps we would do well to note that these days any individual can potentially break a story and get it in the public eye so it’s not just a matter of getting journalists to stop covering the morality issues of public officials.)

  5. Charles D
    March 13, 2010 at 1:39 pm

    “any individual can potentially break a story and get it in the public eye” – if only that were true. If your story is about how you were sexually exploited, harassed or involved with a public figure, then certainly you can get your story out. If your story is about the corruption of major banks or corporations or about the waste in the US military budget, or the victims of our imperial ambitions then you can yell and scream all you want and you will be ignored.

    We cannot go back to the days when the media were “gentlemen” and didn’t publish gossip about politicians, but we also have made it more difficult to find able men and women to fill public offices because they know they will be subject to the same intense scrutiny, name calling, and unfounded attacks as current politicos. I gather you still intend to find out about this first hand. I wish you well.

  6. JHP
    March 15, 2010 at 11:01 am

    It’s interesting, David, that you say that this problem is between Garn and his constituents. I agree that his constituents should hold him accountable and that he is responsible to report to them, but what he does in the legislature affects the whole state.

    I don’t believe that Garn or any other elected official should necessarily be directly accountable to constituents other than those they represent, but if I don’t like what a representative in another district is doing, whether on the local, state, or federal level, and their actions affect me and my family, then I have an interest in that and will do whatever I can to minimize that representative’s influence in my life and to convince that representative’s constituents to boot them out of office.

    • March 15, 2010 at 11:13 am

      I absolutely agree with you that what he does in the legislature affects the whole state and that people like us who are not his constituents have some interest in whether he returns. I am very much in favor of anyone using their influence and voicing their opinion about how his constituents should respond—I was simply trying to acknowledge that those outside his district should be be silent once his constituents have chosen.

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