As a nation built on principles of democracy, we constantly place people in various positions of power through wide election processes. The perceived “best” candidate is chosen from the field, and we place our demands and needs on his or her shoulders. Our elected leaders are responsible for contributing to the growth of their region of control and to the welfare of its citizens.
But sometimes our choices fall short of these ideals, and we’re left wondering what happened. Did we follow the wrong instincts? Fall for some cheesy one-liners that couldn’t be fulfilled? When the mistakes of politicians are exposed, the constituency is stunned, but also quite curious. We wonder how the mind behind dishonest actions managed to stay off our radars in time to earn a coveted leadership spot. How could we be so naïve? When transgressions are made public after the fact, we often feel betrayed. So if a politician decides to skip the surprise and reveal errors in judgment right up front, should we feel relieved, or question the character of this leader? The actions of the new governor of New York, David A. Paterson, are forcing us to think about this in relevance to our own government officials.
It seems appropriate that in this highly sexualized culture, many of the mistakes made by government leaders fall outside a PG realm. It also seems appropriate the mass media would eat these stories right up. Former President Bill Clinton’s Oval Office encounter caused a national uproar and put his presidential status in jeopardy. Larry Craig gave up his Senate position after an arrest in a Minnesota airport for attempting to initiate lewd contact with an undercover police officer. The former governor of New York, Eliot Spitzer, resigned once his involvement in a prostitution ring was publicized after a federal wiretap investigation. But Paterson came right out and said it, acknowledging past incidents of infidelity in his marriage, only one day after being sworn into office.
We expect the chosen men and women to be trustworthy, transparent and honest while in office. It is generally thought these characteristics existed before an official is put into power. But in a society obsessed with exposure and scandal, transgressions of those in government, while in office or beforehand, are brought to light more easily. Some politicians see their downfalls when these mistakes are publicized, and in the wake of this, others, like Paterson, are choosing a route of disclosure. Dishonesty while in office is one thing, but happenings prior to election are another matter. How much do we really want to know? Was Paterson’s approach the best idea?
In a New York Times article, Paterson reassured the citizens of New York that his fidelity in recent years should not be questioned, and that he and his wife had taken steps to restore their marital relationship. He came clean so he could be honest with the public, but also to avoid later exposure and consequences while in office. Paterson made this announcement in the aftermath of the Spitzer scandal, not in the wake of any personal accusations against him. In one of his very first actions as governor, Paterson chose to head off any dedicated media hawk and be the one to expose his personal mistakes.
The rumor mill won’t be energized with the news of Paterson’s previous liaisons because he’s already told the truth. Although his honesty can be appreciated, the motivations behind infidelity call a person’s overall character into question. Sexual transgressions can fall on the public’s ears in several ways. Criticism can be passed down quickly, as the public hardens to any pleas for forgiveness. On the other hand, sympathy can be evoked for a moment of weakness, because we all know how that feels. Everybody makes mistakes, right?
But should politicians be allowed to fall down to the same standards of “everybody?” Isn’t their exceptional character supposedly what got them into office in the first place? Will the added responsibilities of his new governmental post prevent Paterson from going down the same road? If Paterson cheated on his wife once, he can certainly do it again. The public can be appreciative of the transparency, or alarmed at the existence of character flaws in a new leader. Beating gossip mongers to the punch is certainly better than a public scandal, but are the internal questions about character worth it?