Barack Obama smoked pot, Mitt Romney strapped a dog to his car, Chris Christie closed lanes on the Washington Bridge, Anthony Weiner desperately needs a Twitter tutorial, and yes, Bill Clinton did have sexual relations with that woman. Open up the political section of any major newspaper these days, and it reads like an issue of US Weekly. How did politics become so scandalous?
My first introduction to this racy world came at the tender age of eight. I was sitting behind my mother in our old minivan as she drove down 95 north well under the speed limit, tuned into NPR. “Paper or plastic?” the host purred over the radio. “Paper,” former president Bill Clinton responded, in a surprisingly serious tone considering the question. “Boxers or briefs?” She changed the station.
Maybe politicians didn’t become nastier, maybe we just got nosier.
In the U.S., we look to our founding fathers as the ideal politicians. George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin—these are true geniuses of politics. Their faces stare up at us from the money we stuff into our wallets and pockets, and we read and reread their work, drooling over the sheer genius of it all. In a country that boasts separation of church and state, we’ve done an excellent job of canonizing these men. Yet, what we know of them is mainly their political work—we mostly revere their minds. They were the lucky ones—they weren’t around in the era of the television. They weren’t around when we wanted to know what kind of underwear they preferred.
Now, we need to know our politicians intimately. With the rise of television, our representatives aren’t only making laws and settling international disputes—now they are invited into our living rooms and kitchens, peering out from these 60-inch devices. We don’t explicitly say we want our president to have a wife or husband, at least one child, and go to church every Sunday, but it is comforting to think that the man we invite into our house is the loving father of two daughters, and is currently considering a second dog.
Just imagine an unmarried woman with no religious affiliation being a serious candidate for president. We’ve only had one unmarried president, and that was in the 1850s.
We aren’t the only country with this problem of making politicians celebrities. In England, the queen acts as the figurehead of the state, while the prime minister and Parliament govern. Here, politicians must be both figureheads and lawmakers. They must submit to our gossip and criticism and try to govern. They must work for us and give their lives to us.
While campaigning, Romney wore a “suit” composed of jeans and a button-down in an attempt to distance himself from the world of CEOs that he actually occupies. Hillary Clinton was harassed over wearing a shirt that showed “too much cleavage.” And, most recently, Twitter and other media outfits covered Obama’s tan suit in the pressroom, but seemed to miss his actual briefing on ISIS.
One wonders in retrospect, if image is so important, would Franklin Delano Roosevelt have looked strong enough to be leader of the free world?
We expect a certain image, a certain lifestyle, a certain type of religion. Yes, it is hard to vote for a man who recently posted deeply intimate photos on social media, but does this truly indicate anything about his stance on healthcare, immigration, or possible military intervention in Syria?
John F. Kennedy had a poorly hidden affair, but this didn’t keep him from preventing nuclear Armageddon, establishing the Peace Corps, and assisting the Civil Rights Movements. Bill Clinton’s wandering eye didn’t keep him from the longest economic expansion in American history, lowest unemployment in 30 years, and significant increases in education standards.
Yes, I would prefer if none of these scandals occurred. I don’t want a dog-neglecter holding public office, and I don’t want a philanderer in the governor’s mansion, but I do want to remember that there is a dividing line between public political abilities and private life. I don’t want to miss out on a political genius that could turn around Congress and solve the crisis in the Middle East because I didn’t like her or his image. I don’t want to miss out on the next FDR.
This isn’t to say completely ignore morals when selecting a candidate. Of course, a crook shouldn’t be voted into office, and of course, someone with no moral compass should never be the leader of the free world. But these are issues that do have an impact on what type of official a candidate would be.
It is difficult to ignore the media buzz—to ignore the Vine of Michelle Obama with a turnip—but remember that you aren’t voting for the candidate who is best fit to be the next member of your family. Detach the politician’s image from his or her political decisions and his or her potential as a maker of law and public policy.
Leave celebrity to the celebrities—leave governing to the governors.
Featured Image by Charles Dharapak / AP Photo