Why do we care so much about politicians who are unfaithful in their personal lives? We have spent so much time, money, effort, and valuable broadcast time on politicians’ infidelities that they are seared in our memories.
We all know the stories of President Bill Clinton (D) and Monica Lewinsky, Representative Newt Gingrich (R-GA 6th) and Callista Bisek (now Gingrich), Representative Gary Condit (D-CA 15th) and Chandra Levy, Senator Larry Craig (R-IL) and his bathroom stall, Governor Jim McGreevey (D-NJ) and Golan Cipel, Governor Mark Sanford (R-SC) and María Belén Chapur, Senator John Edwards (D-NC) and Rielle Hunter, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-CA) and Patty Baena, and Representative Anthony Weiner (D-NY 9th) and his Twittered . . . um . . . bulge. You will notice that this list is a bipartisan affair; this is not a proclivity unique to either Republicans or Democrats, or more prevalent on one side or the other.
There are occasional instances where these infidelities justified the attention they got, at least to a point.
Clinton, in lying about his affair under oath, committed a felony that would have sent any other American to prison, which is certainly a newsworthy matter (and certainly qualifies as an impeachable ‘high crime’). Sanford, in abandoning his post as Governor of South Carolina to play around with his Argentinian mistress without letting anybody know where he went, should have been impeached under the state’s impeachment clause (which allows for impeachment in cases of any ‘serious misconduct in office,’ even if it’s not strictly illegal). Craig was arrested for soliciting sex in an airport bathroom, which is a crime (although, arguably, not a particularly serious one). Edwards has been accused of violating campaign finance laws in using campaign funds to cover up his affair with Hunter and, once again, the possible crime warrants some public attention . . . although, considering Edwards is not currently in or seeking elective office, I’m not sure of its national media relevance.
But what of the others? Gingrich’s affair with Bisek had no immediate political relevance, nor did Condit’s affair with Levy, nor McGreevy and Cipel, nor Schwarzenegger and Baena, nor Weiner and his idiotic Twitter photo. When an affair inspires a politician to commit a crime or to fall short of his legal duty to his constituents, then it becomes a proper matter for broad public discussion. Otherwise, it’s really none of our business, except in the very narrow sense that a politicians’ constituents can and should consider their representatives’ general trustworthiness and character, and their fidelity or infidelity in marriage certainly reflects on this.
So, should Weiner resign for having inappropriate conversations and relationships on the Internet? That’s up to him. I don’t think that personal infidelity is automatically reason to step down from elective office, anymore than it would be reason to step down as a CEO or as a bus driver or as a doctor. Weiner should step down if he thinks his personal issues will prevent him from properly serving his constituents. If he doesn’t think it will impact his performance in Congress, then he shouldn’t. If he doesn’t step down, however, his constituents still have the right to consider this matter when voting in 2012. It is perfectly valid to question whether a man who would swear fidelity to his wife, and then cheat on her, can be trusted when he swears to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” If one oath means nothing to him, why should we assume that he’ll take the other seriously?
But that is a matter only for the people of New York’s 9th district. For those of us in the other 434 Congressional districts, it’s not relevant, and it’s not news. Let New York’s media focus on Weinergate; our national media has much more important matters to attend to.
Update, 6/16/2011 2:30 p.m.: Representative Weiner has announced his resignation from the United States House of Representatives. Speaking in his home district, Weiner’s resignation announcement was interrupted by hecklers who shouted lewd and inappropriate remarks.