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Private lives and the public interest

Whenever a scandal arises, the same debate is replayed: does the public have a right to know about a politician’s private affairs?


 

Private lives and the public interest

The hypocrite in our times is not, as of old, the libertine posing as moralist—Tartuffe, or Angelo in Measure for Measure—but moralists posing as libertines. Today we are most keen to advertise not our virtue but our worldly indifference to others’ faults, fearing not that we might be accused of the same so much as that we might be thought of as prigs. Judge not lest ye be judgmental.

This is particularly so when it comes to the political arena. On those not infrequent occasions when a politician is found to have behaved badly in his private life, there is always a crush of apologists racing to the nearest rooftop to shout how little they care. Cheats on his wife? Yawn. Drunk every night? Big deal. Takes hundreds of thousands in cash from fugitive international arms dealers? Doesn’t everyone?

From Adam Giambrone to Maxime Bernier, from Bill Clinton to Brian Mulroney, whenever the issue arises the same debate is replayed. Does the public have a right to know about a politician’s private affairs? How much? How far?

To be sure, some of the people most concerned that we not inquire too closely into politicians’ private lives are those in the business of spinning for politicians, who have as much an interest as their clients in pretending that politicians are honourable, high-minded people, and not at all the sorts who would, say, hire spin doctors.

So, too, there are the bored sophisticates who find the whole subject unspeakably provincial. Politicians, they complain, are being held to an impossible standard, as puritanical as it is archaic. But mostly there is an understandable anxiety that this not be carried too far, that politicians be permitted some sphere of privacy, secure from public disclosure.

To the question, then, of where do you draw the line, they answer that no line need be drawn: that whatever a politician does in his private life is no business of ours, just so long as it does not affect “his ability to do his job.” After all, if this keeps up it will be impossible to get good serial philanderers to go into politics.

And yet I can’t think these people actually mean what they say. In fact, no such neat separation is possible between private and public lives, either in principle or in practice. If a public official were discovered to enjoy robbing banks in his spare time, I doubt anyone would say it was strictly a private matter. In the same way, I can’t help wondering if those who claim to be unmoved that a politician cheats on his wife would feel the same way if someone were to cheat on them.

As a voter, it strikes me that a man who will lie to his wife will lie to me, and the lengths he will go to deceive her is probably a measure of how far he will go to deceive the rest of us. We do not elect a platform when we vote. We elect leaders, and while it might be argued that we could as well be led by frauds and debauchees so long as the facade of decency was preserved, it is not only for their moral example that we elect them. We are also making guesses about how they would react in a given situation, how well they would stand up under pressure, what sorts of choices they would make and why. We are assessing their character and judgment, and for that we need as much information as possible.

Politicians know this, which is why they are in fact quite keen to have us know about their private lives, when it suits their purposes. Hence the Christmas-card photos with the family, the exclusive behind-the-scenes interviews, even the odd teary soliloquy about a personal tragedy. If politicians do not themselves separate their personal and public lives, it’s not clear why the rest of us should.

Is everything fair game, then, no matter how personal? Is it open season on politicians’ private lives, the better to feed a scandal-hungry media? No. We are not required to substitute one extreme for another, as indiscriminate in the latter case as the former. We are required to use some judgment. As it happens, we are not without yardsticks. There are, first, the basic standards of responsible journalism. Is it true? Is it fair? And before all: is it relevant? Is this something the public would find pertinent to taking the measure of this person?

And there are the sorts of rules that restrain the state in similar situations. We should, for example, have “reasonable and probable grounds” before we go asking a prying personal question. When Pamela Wallin famously asked John Turner whether he had a drinking problem, she was not just fishing: the matter was widely rumoured, if not publicly discussed. Likewise, the means by which information is obtained should not be overly invasive. The Toronto Star did not go poking through Giambrone’s garbage to discover the erstwhile mayoral candidate’s public image as a happily “partnered” man was a sham. His jilted lover came to them with the proof.

I know, I know: would anyone have voted for JFK if they’d been told what he was up to? Who knows? That’s up to the public to decide, not the media. Still, it didn’t seem to hurt Clinton. Which suggests standards are not so impossibly high as all that. Personally, the test I apply is this: knowing what I know, would I hire this person to deliver pizza? If they can’t pass that test, I’m not sure they should be prime minister or president.


 

Private lives and the public interest

  1. I thought the Ceremony was great. Really well done.
    I've never seen a better integration of Canadian Aboriginal and post-Aboriginal culture in one show. This is a big part of what makes Canada who we are, and it was portrayed seamlessly rather than the usual patchwork of token inclusions.

  2. It's more about how you interpret them and how you convey them than whether or not you include them.

    Forgive my totally nonexistent artsy-fart cred, but… how exactly does one interpret and convey what is not included?

    Oh, and I agree, overall the show was pretty cool. But the anthem was show-offy when it should not have been, no matter what the producer would like to throw up as justification.

  3. Well, this was certainly written by a very talented, funny man!

  4. I can't believe that, with all the shouting about Canadian pride and so on, we had to have an Australian David Atkins to produce our opening ceremony show. It's as if the Chinese had hired let us say a Korean to produce their opening ceremony show at the Bejing games. What a shame.

  5. Paul, you've proven on more than one occasion to be a darn fine writer, and your perspective can be inspiring.

  6. "If a public official were discovered to enjoy robbing banks in his spare time, I doubt anyone would say it was strictly a private matter."

    I like this article… but really, this should have been cut. Trite and obvious.

    Everyone is a critic right?

  7. My husband was and most likely still is a top notch cheater and liar of the fact. Does anyone care? No. Is he a public figure? No. Did I tollerate that behaviour? Not one bit. Do I tollerater it others? Not one bit. Look, if you want/need multipl partners then fine. Just don't commit to one person and hide behind the moral virtures of a "family man" because it's rather tasteless. Go ahead be a man-whore just do it as a single and uncommitted guy and stop hiding like a coward behind the sanctity of marriage because the image suits your personal/professional agenda. I'd trust that a lot more than I would the husband who lies.

  8. Good piece. It is indeed character one votes for in either a republic or a Parliamentary democracy, and personal misjudgments in personal life are therefore quite relevant – particularly if they concern the candidate's trustworthiness.

    This is what I despised about the Clintonian defenders who would consistently screech "you're obsessed with his sex life!" whenever the matter came up. No, it's not actually his sex life that people cared about per se; it was the lies and broken promises to both his wife and the public, especially those uttered while under oath. Everyone messes up now and then, but it's those who have the character to acknowledge the failure and make it right that you want in government.

    Civil service is, in the end, a noble calling. It requires noble people to fulfill it well. The responsibility is too great to dismiss personal character from the job description.

    • I don't blame Clinton for not disclosing his personal business. It was (and still is) nobody's business!

      Just another right-wing nut looking for a scrap…

    • I agree, but the one thing about the Clinton investigation that rankled me was that Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky were uncovered during an investigation into a land deal in Arkansas. There was nothing relevant about his sex life or infidelity at all and it was purely about the Republicans trying to bring him down. Clinton's lie to the Grand Jury that ultimately got him impeached came from an attempt to protect yes, himself, but also to keep something that wasn't relevant from entering the picture. In the end, once the Lewinsky scandal was out, I have no problem with people making character judgments on him for the reasons outlined in the article, but the discovery was quite unseemly and his lie was understandable to a degree, because it should never have gotten to that point.

  9. You are an incorrigible optimist, Mr. Andrew Coyne: you do not automatically assume our political leaders are liars and frauds by default, simply because they are politicians. I applaud your optimism.

    As I am implying, I would suggest that cynicism is at the root of claims not to care about the personal lives of politicians as much as anything else: if all politicians are corrupt simply by the act of being involved in politics then personal scandals tell us nothing we didn’t already know.

  10. I enjoyed this article, but extend its thesis beyond adultery and fraud — moralistic issues.

    For example, my previous MP was the late Dave Batters. Tragically, he committed suicide, and it became apparent that he was mentally ill with severe depression.

    A few months before he resigned his seat, he issued a press release to announce he was taking time off for personal and health reasons.

    Nobody in the media commented; kady o'malley mentioned that she liked him and hoped he would be back, but it was clear that talking about his illness was taboo.

    So let me ask — is the mental health of our elected leaders relevant to those they represent? Is it more personal than an extra-marital affair? Is it just too judgey to say anything about it?

    And how can mental illness ever be dealt with if we are forbidden to acknowledge it? Maybe if we had recognized and talked more openly about his illness, Dave Batters could have found help, and not felt stigmatized and a need to disappear from public life.

  11. "I know, I know: would anyone have voted for JFK if they'd been told what he was up to? Who knows? That's up to the public to decide, not the media"

    I don't have a problem with that statement…but it does raise some interesting questions. Trudeau's past for instance is a more relevant example for us, perhaps. It's arguable that had his youthful dallience with anti-semitism and rather risque views on popular revolt, been known much earlier in his caeer, he would not have been found suitable as PM. But would that have been entirely fair? Given that he didn't hold those views his whole life, and became a fierce advocate of individual rights. Not all of us, but many would consider it a loss.
    I suppose you could argue that once the truth's out there it's yet another test of character in how you refute those charges? On that score Mulroney was/is a definite fail.

  12. The only thing worse than a journalist who can't write and doesn't have anything useful to say is a journalist who writes very well but still doesn't have anything useful to say. In the later the clarity of prose hides the vacuity of thought. This article is well written and completely useless. Coyne sets up straw men at either extreme, knocks each down, but doesn't ever explain how one should position oneself between the two extremes. Worse, he intimates that knowing details of the politician's personal life is valuable without explaining how to decide. It seems to me that the question “does this personal detail significantly affect how the person will do the assigned job?” is the relevant one. You can find negative behaviours (usually unpublicised) in the personal history of every person if you look hard enough.

  13. Doesn't it then make sense that if we cannot trust a politician who would so lie to their partner, we cannot trust a partner who stays with a politician, knowing that as per the necessity of their profession, they lie and cheat and distort and will likely do so to them, too?

  14. Andrew, a thoughtful article and very nicely written.

  15. I still don't kow if i'm completely onside with AC here. What about Levesque, and those absurd fabrications he concocted [ in his memoirs??]. Did the fact he was well known to lie from time to time really limit his affectiveness as a politician? It certainly would have bothered me…but not it seems many Quebecers. Maybe they get upset about different moral lapses?

  16. Don't tell me what I vote for.

  17. To Aster,

    This writing is serial. First he asks ‘Do we have a ‘right’ to know if a politician uses foreign healthcare’ then ‘do we have a ‘right’ to know their personal indescretions. The droaning harmony animating each new entry is ‘do we care, why do we care, who cares and why’. The purpose is to keep his mojo oiled inbetween appearances.

  18. This is such a subjective topic. As varied as our backgrounds and value systems are, so are our opinions on whether pieces of a politician's "personal" life are revelant. It's track records and trust on certain key areas that have affected or currently affect our lives that determine our views on various scandals. I haven't experienced what Diane above has experienced so I judge a politician's extramarital affairs differently. If Mulroney's policies positively impacted me while he was in office, maybe I wouldn't think he was a corrupt manipulator.

  19. For me it's, "say what you'll do (and more importantly what you won't do) and do what you say!" So if you say one thing and do the opposite, it's fair game to call someone out on it! So if you going to be a cad, just say so and let the electorate see you, warts and all!!

  20. Mr Coyne's hypocrisy is of course staggering.

    Coyne would have us believe that a politician's private life is relevant, because it helps voters determine the ethics of the potential leader. However, the same applies to journalists. I cannot always know if a journalist is being honest in his reporting. Therefore, we should open up the private life of Mr. Coyne to public scrutiny as well. How much would he like that?

    • Coyne is not asking for your vote in order to represent your interests in the governing of the society in which you live. It's his employer's job to decide his qualifications and whether to let him represent his views under its masthead; and there are, rightly so, labour laws to protect the level to which an employer can pry into an employee's private life. This not so subtle difference may have escaped you in your rush to point out a false hypocrisy.

      • Coyne, through his writing, has more influence than most MPs. And we don't even get to vote for him. Since he is not accountable to us by the ballot, he should be at least as accountable as our MPs are by other means.

        So Coyne, as a public person, deserves no more privacy than he allows the politicians he speaks of.

        —–
        My argument is slightly less absurd than Coyne's, but we're both wrong. The opposite of privacy is totalitarianism. Any freedom-loving society reserves a significant sphere of privacy. Not only do I not want to know with whom Coyne or any politician frolics, I don't want them knowing with whom I frolic. I will judge Coyne's accomplishments through the quality of his work, and the same goes for politicians.

    • Neither journalists nor politicians have a 'right' to privacy. They do, however, have a right to their property. Details about their sex lives is not property. It's information.

  21. "If a public official were discovered to enjoy robbing banks in his spare time, I doubt anyone would say it was strictly a private matter."____
    Andrew, Andrew, Andrew, Except that robbing banks is a criminal act, while having carnal relations with a consenting adult that is not your spouse no longer is… In Canada anyways

    • So we’re going to go strictly on a basis of legal/illegal here? I think people in public office have to be held to standard a teeny-weeny bit higher than the legality test.

  22. Two weeks after the biggest scandal in Canadian politics breaks and Maclean's finally gets around to reporting it. Makes you wonder how many Maclean's editors Giambrone was banging (we're all liberals here and ok with that sort of language, yes?).

    If you use your family, as a prop, a stunt, to get elected, to give the false impression that you are a family man, a lot of people say that your personal life becomes fair game.

    Giambrone and a lot of politicians use their spouses and families – in Giambrone's case his common law wife – deliberately and cynically to pull votes. Think about this: had "Jammies" not had his common law wife appear with him at campaign kickoff the whole thing never would have happened, and even if random skanks began making allegations, he could simply and credibly say his private life is private and that as an unmarried guy it's no one's concern who he is sleeping with.

    (I wrote the above before reading the whole article, calculating that it would be the usual anti-moral pap, but I just read it and am pleasantly surprised, especially by the remarkably apposite first paragraph. Good job, AC, though I fear your profoundly anti-moral capital-L Liberal readership is going to clobber you for this post.)

    • Maybe you should take a good hard look at your own morals before commenting on others.

    • 'Randon skanks'? And you're speaking as a pro-moral conservative I take it? And you admit to commenting without reading – that does explain a lot.

      • "And you're speaking as a pro-moral conservative I take it?"

        Look! She used the term "pro-moral"! See my comment below for more about this. As if being "pro-moral" is bad! And as if being "anti-moral" is a legitimate position!

        Ack! And it's noted that it's almost always women who are the ones who have a beef with morality. To them, morality means an old, white man with a beard telling them they should not get neck tattoos. I told you these people are anti-moral and now it is proven!

        Remember, women are repulsed by "nice" and are sexually aroused by badness as a matter of Darwinian biology; evil behooves them as it increases a man's ability to procure goods (material = mater = woman). Am I the only one who makes the connection between rapidly declining morals in our society and allowing a gender that gets sexually turned on by evil to vote? Because that's largely the deal here. With one exception: guys who screw around on their women. That's one bit of evil that usually (but not always) still makes the sisterhood mad.

        • Time to change your moniker to NutJob.

        • Thanks for putting pro-moral in quotes. I neglected to do that. Carry on trolling.

  23. We should, for example, have “reasonable and probable grounds” before we go asking a prying personal question. When Pamela Wallin famously asked John Turner whether he had a drinking problem, she was not just fishing: the matter was widely rumoured, if not publicly discussed.

    Andrew, I've heard that there's an affair going on in Ottawa involving the spouse of a very high-profile MP. It's widely rumoured, but definitely not publicly discussed. In your opinion, are there circumstances when the actions of a political spouse become fair game for questioning/reporting? If so, what are those circumstances?

  24. It is oh so very complicated. We have to be very careful about this issue. Probably most of the greatest historical leaders were likely not "morally perfect", but the damaging information about them remains unknown to us . It would be too dangerous to make up a grocery list of what is allowed or disallowed because we vary in our morals. So perhaps it is best to take each case as it is revealed and let the people make their own decisions with that powerful punishing weapon known as the vote.

    I grew up thinking JFK was a hero, but once the truth about his private life came out, I never felt the same about him. Bill Clinton also dropped down in popularity with me, but for many if the sinner is charming and attractive, it doesn't matter what they do, there's plenty of admiring fans that stay faithful.

  25. "It would be too dangerous to make up a grocery list of what is allowed or disallowed because we vary in our morals."

    Good point. One man's rapist is another man's ubermensch, right? So let's just not have any moral standards in society. Rape, theft, murder can all be justified one way or another, so whose to say in this 500 channel universe what's right and wrong?

    *groan*

    How did we get here, guys? How did we become a society where "good judgment" is an oxymoron and where people like Sprite genuinely believe that there is no right or wrong? Whose fault is that? The Pope? No. It's the fault of leftists.

    See, there's moral, there's amoral, there's immoral, and then there is the typical Canadian leftist: deeply, virulently anti-moral. The word moral itself is actually used as a pejorative, i.e. "he's so moral, what a so-and-so".

    Blech. O tempora o mores!

    Here's a freebie before I retire for the evening, kids: a good man will be more loathed in a pack of knaves than a knave will be loathed among good people. In the latter case, the damage can be contained; in the former, a virtuous man can blow the whole gig for everybody and therefore represents a far greater danger. We acquire these insights by being a non-unionized worker in a public sector unionized work environment. Good night.

    • OnTheJob, I feel you have misinterpreted, and perhaps even twisted my words, but then you probably won't agree with that either.

  26. Anyone who achieves a position of power over a significant number of other people has no right to a private life.

  27. What is Muldoon's pic doing there, anyway? Talk about one of these things is not like the other, he is and was utterly devoted to his wife and had no philandering scandal unlike Giambrone and Clinton.

  28. The other thing about Giambroni is not just that there was a scandal, but his reaction to it;
    – first reaction: lie about it
    – second reaction: a badly managed press conference
    Even for those who feel that the act itself didn't disqualify him from high office, the fact that he has demonstrated how badly he handles a crissis rightly should. (And this isn't one incident, it extends the pattern of missmanagement – e.g. streetcar cost overruns)

  29. What is the link between competency and character? If someone is of poor character, they are apt to squandor their potential–a politician does a disservice to his constituency by failing to achieve all that is within his ability. I would say that was true of Clinton and Kennedy. Intelligence can give one the smarts to lead, but character is necessary to make the smarts fully effective. It's one thing to know the right thing to do, it's another thing to actually do it without fail. This is especially pertinent with respect to a politician whose actions should be dedicated to building a just society.

  30. "Is everything fair game, then, no matter how personal? Is it open season on politicians' private lives, the better to feed a scandal-hungry media? No. We are not required to substitute one extreme for another, as indiscriminate in the latter case as the former. We are required to use some judgment."

    We are entitled to know everything about a pol because Government now micro-manages our lives in ways it never did 40 years ago. If someone thinks they know my business better than I do, I would like to know their personal history and see how good they are at leading a life they expect me to lead. Right now, we have one set of rules for hoi-polloi – who are constantly exposed to big finger proctologist treatment from government – and the elites who sit above the fray and talk about privacy.

    You would think people would be told that Canada has a padeaphile as Foreign Affairs Minister but they closed ranks to protect him and the Liberals. I don't trust the msm and their judgment.

    "Canada's newly appointed Foreign Affairs Minister, Bill Graham, is a darling of the homosexual activist community having constantly supported pro-homosexuality initiatives including homosexual marriage. However, last year a Toronto-based homosexual magazine called Fab published an interview with Lawrence Metherel, a former male prostitute, who claimed to have had a sexual relationship with the Graham, dating back to 1980 when Metherel was 15. " LIfeSiteNews, Feb 2002

    • I used to think that Conservative politicians, particularly in the UK, got nailed by the media having affairs or, worse, being photographed tied to a tree in Hyde Park wearing only fishnets and an apple in their mouth, because there were randier than their leftist counterparts.

      The reality is that the media is of course overwhelmingly leftist and colludes with leftist politicians to suppress their peccadilloes while uncovering every rock to find dirt on right wing politicians and figures. In the extreme example of Max Mosely, they deliberately entrap them, with the apparent assistance of MI5: An MI5 officer has been forced to resign after admitting that his wife was a prostitute who took part in a notorious “Nazi-style orgy” with Max Mosley, the Formula One racing chief. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article3

      Pool doesn't get any dirtier than that.

  31. Well now, a prolific liberal media parrot declaring that there are actually codes of conduct that men should abide by. That's remarkable, even if the morality you are implicitly espousing is entirely subjective and essentially, at bottom, useless in application. But that's a start for a guy like you Andrew.

  32. I don't think politician's personal life should influence their political career, unless they have made improper decisions before.
    In the case of Giambrone, he is already a terrible TTC chairman, look at the number of complaints riders have. And the fact that his personal life is a mess adds to the fact that he's not a superb candidate for mayor.

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