No more sex, please

March 3, 2008

The flap over the big New York Times story about Sen. John McCain’s ties to lobbyists centers, understandably, on its most sensational allegation: That his dealings eight years ago with an attractive young woman, a lobbyist with blue-chip clients, were so frequent and so cordial – at a time when his 2000 presidential campaign was revving up — that aides got worried and warned him that people might suspect romance.

The Times has taken a lot of heat for reporting this. McCain and the lobbyist both deny ever having an affair, and the article offered nothing to suggest the aides had good reason for grinding their teeth — no evidence of weekends in Bimini, room-service breakfasts for two, amorous glances or even warm handshakes.

So the grounds for even raising the possibility of a romance were mushy. But my concern is not with whether McCain had an affair, it’s to what degree that matters – and whether the press is right to regard the private, discreet, consensual sex of public officials as newsworthy.

Let’s be clear that if this were simply an allegation that as chair of one of the Senate’s most powerful committees McCain showed favoritism toward the clients of a personal friend, it would not have stirred up such a fuss. What gives this tale its propellant isn’t the suggestion of official misconduct, but of private sex. And I’m questioning whether — even if true — that’s legitimate grist for the media mill.

Sure, everybody – even presidential candidates – ought to conform to basic norms of moral behavior. They should keep their promises, and that includes their marital vows. They should lavish their children with kindness, and respect their parents; they should act in ways that are trustworthy and honorable in all matters, small as well as large.

But when they don’t, when is it our business? If somebody who holds a position of public trust behaves like a swine in his or her personal life, do the rest of us have a right to know about it — and by extension, do we have a right to demand that the press, as our surrogates, ferret out that news and bring it to us?

For many years the press was silent about the closeted improprieties of the powerful, and the roster of presidential mistresses was closely held, if you’ll forgive the expression. No longer. Nowadays, journalists subscribe to the notion of “character.”

“Character” imagines some seamless continuity between inner self and outer behavior, between the most private and the most public. It implies that sordid details about a public official’s private life that would otherwise be none of our business become our business because they reveal habits of mind and predispositions that will help shape public performance.

There is some truth to that, but how much isn’t clear. After all, statesmen of vision and compassion may be horrors back home — tyrannical, sullen, abusive. Consider Lincoln’s melancholia, Churchill’s drinking, Roosevelt’s mistress, Kennedy’s women. Leaders who inspire their countries may be grossly negligent to their own families (take Reagan and his children.)

If the link between public and private were so self-evident, biographers would have to find another line of work.

So should the press therefore ignore hypocrisy? Obviously it’s almost irresistible to want to expose public figures who are crude, deceitful or exploitive in their personal relations while treating the rest of us to sanctimonious blather about values.

But don’t even jerks have privacy rights? Do you really want reporters assigned to a private relations beat, or interviewing dozens of people about whether some legislator made a pass at them or had gay trysts?

Besides, the hypocrisy we really need to know about doesn’t require such intrusions; it’s about the inconsistencies between public word and public deed: The politician who extols family values and slashes day-care funding, who professes concern for soldiers and blocks an inquiry into shabby medical care for veterans, who cuts backroom deals that sell out policy pronouncements.

Or a war hero who’s running for president as a maverick, who claims to resist the blandishments of lobbyists, but who accepts perks from rich guys and intervenes with regulators to appease his benefactors.

Nobody needs evidence – let alone mere suspicions — of some after-hours roll in the hay to understand whether such conduct is problematic. Let journalism get back to its proper focus, public immorality, and give sex a rest.

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