This past Thursday and Friday on Fox News Bill O’Reilly spent time talking about Arnold Schwarzenegger and his affair with his maid and the resulting love child. O’Reilly is concerned with the pervasiveness of social media and the internet and the implications for good people who make mistakes and their ability to run for office. To be fair, Mr. Bill was not making light of Arnold’s or John Edwards’ infidelities. He questioned what if any impact the stress of the Governator’s personal situation might have had on the escalating California debt under his tenure. But then O’Reilly veers off into the role model question and how false rumors, misinformation, or past mistakes can run rampant on the internet and prevent good people from running for office. He goes so far as to mention the flaws and mistakes of some of the founding fathers, like Thomas Jefferson, who had an affair with his slave, and how they couldn’t get elected in today’s culture.
First, let me say Bill that sounds like you’re justifying bad behavior of today with bad behavior of the past; something you frequently dissuade your guests for doing. Second, I think we have to make a distinction between false rumors and past mistakes. I think good people of all political persuasions can agree that there should be no place for false rumors and lies. Past mistakes or questionable moral decisions should be vetted, owned up to and left up to the American people as to how much they want to let it affect their vote. After all, we are talking about the most powerful and important positions in our country. I once had to go through a ten-year background check to get a job in retail at a department store. It should be harder to get a job in government than it is at Macy’s.
The role model question: If as a society we can place this kind of pressure and responsibility on our star athletes and our entertainers, (See the scrutiny TNT analyst and retired Hall of Fame basketball player Charles Barkley received for his, “I am not a role model”, commercial in 1993) we can do the same or more for those who would be Commander in Chief and leaders of the free world. However, our collective differences, cultural, religious and so on make it impossible for any public figure to live up to what everyone’s definition is of what makes a good role model. The axiom, you can’t please all of the people all of the time applies here. What we have a right to expect is honesty, consistency, integrity, loyalty, leadership, and qualities that evoke respect and trust. Further, how politicians respond to the mistakes that we all make says as much or more about their character than the mistake itself. As your ilk has said on many occasions Bill: The cover up is worse than the crime.
From the perspective of a politician, the risk of covering up a mistake has been worth the reward of political advancement and the power and prestige that comes with it. So they lie, cover up and compound their errors or questionable judgment. Today’s media, the internet, the bloggers and digital technology does make it harder for one to cover their tracks. I say that is a good thing. Let the politicians of tomorrow beware; your mistakes will follow you. Mistakes, or arrogance, immorality, corruption and so on. So don’t make them, but if you do, deal with them in a responsible way with integrity. You see the flip side is Americans are a very forgiving and understanding society. George W. Bush was elected despite a DUI. Bill Clinton, was elected even though he claimed not to inhale and was reelected despite extra marital activity. Further, the possible candidates have increased over the years which runs counter to the inference that social media is making it harder. For example, Newt Gingrich, Rudy Giuliani, Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney, and President Obama are examples of those that would not have made it to the primary season as viable candidates when I was growing up. Newt, with his three marriages and affairs, Rudy and his affair/divorce, Hillary being a female, Mitt Romney being a Mormon, and President Obama with Sean Hannity, yourself and others, on the radio, internet et al inundating the public with his association with Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers. Of course not to suggest that any or all of these things are mistakes, I’m just making the point that the voter is more open then ever before and is not so quick to eliminate possible candidates for reasons they would have in the past. Gary Hart for example decided not to run, even though he was leading in the poles, for the democratic nomination in 1987 due to an extra marital affair that he lied about. In 1987, long before Twitter, Hart was in a lose- lose situation based on the mores of the time. Today, a viable candidate can overcome an affair, if he (or she) is honest about it when confronted and deals with it in a way acceptable to the electorate. And if a potential candidate doesn’t run for office because he is afraid that a past situation may come to light and he doesn’t want to be honest about it, than that is not on social media, it is on the individual.
Whether it is counteracting the swift boating of John Kerry, or the mainstream media’s assault on President Bush’s National Guard service record, the independent blogger not only brings a new level of accountability to politicians but to the mainstream media and lobbyists as well. Those are good things. Lying, smearing and character assassinations are among its flaws, but lets not pretend (which you don’t) this doesn’t go on in every other form of media already. It takes a huge amount of money and fundraising to be a viable candidate (which is a problem in and of itself) and it is up to politicians to adapt to the growth of the media and its social arm and as always have the fortitude to see a campaign through. Despite the growth of the media the pundits seem to agree that: jobs, the deficit, gas prices and real issues will decide the next election and not what some right wing radical or left wing loon says on his facebook page.
One of the best lines I have ever heard in a political add is, “character is defined by what you do when people are not looking”. Again, everyone makes mistakes, but it is fair to evaluate candidates based on how they deal with them. More then just a right to know, the public has a right to expect candidates to be willingly vetted and honest about their record, their behavior and why they did or do certain things. In dealing with past mistakes, crimes, or decisions of questionable moral certitude with honor, instead of deception and cover up, that is how a politician can model good behavior. That is a reasonable expectation for us to have of those who would be our leaders.