Surely the nation's moral water table has reached drought level when Gary Hart feels it's safe to declaim again about whether infidelity should be a factor in determining fitness for public office.
Hart was a presidential candidate in 1988 who was forced from the race when reporters discovered him emerging from a woman's home at suggestive hours and after pictures were published showing Donna Rice sitting on his lap aboard the deliciously named boat Monkey Business. Now Hart tells George magazine that how a man treats his wife and children is more important than whether he has affairs.
Surely most married women would regard fidelity as good treatment and infidelity as a form of abuse. Infidelity constitutes a breach of trust, and trust is a central character component in any leader. As for raising "successful children," how does Hart define success?
Hart tells the magazine: "I got linked to people whose behavior was, in my judgment, much worse than mine, people who were involved in sexual harassment, for instance." Does the fact that some people engaged in sexual harassment elevate or absolve Hart? That "all have sinned and fallen short" does not excuse the sin of one, though he may perceive his less consequential than the sin of another.
Hart also suggests in the interview that if we make marital fidelity a standard for leadership, we will have mediocre leaders. We've heard this curious claim before. It implies a correlation between promiscuity and leadership skills and mental acuity. If this is so, Bill Clinton probably scores as the greatest president in history.
Several things ought to disturb us about Hart's reasoning. First, he seems to be saying that there is no benefit to the man who fulfills his wedding-day promises to his wife and walks with integrity before his children. In Hart's view, fidelity and promiscuity are morally equivalent. This is much easier for the guilty to rationalize than the innocent. Perhaps the wives of wandering men should be asked whether it's all the same to them if their husbands sleep at home or with someone else. Even the most "tolerant" woman would probably have difficulty living with such an arrangement.
Second, unlike the Promise Keepers movement, whose slogan is "Raise the Standard," Gary Hart seems content to see the standard continue to fall. We live in a time when some suggest that grading students hurts their developing psyches, and so it is better to have a "pass or fail" system so no one will feel bad. The idea of competition is being challenged as injurious to the young because some will lose sporting contests and experience diminished self-esteem. Better not to keep score, they reason, and just enjoy the game. Real life is not like that, and learning at an early age to deal with winning and losing, as well as pursuing virtue and integrity, equips the young for the experiences they will face later on.
Hart also condemns the press for the way it handled his "affair" and the allegations surrounding President Clinton. While the press may rightfully be accused of sensationalism, inaccuracy and bias in far too many cases, it cannot find what is not there. A man who is faithful to his wife and avoids the appearance of misconduct is not likely to be brought up on charges of infidelity.
Should we demand that only men and women who have never made personal or professional mistakes hold high office? Of course not. But we should not want leaders who pretend there is no standard. There is always room for those who err, confess their guilt and vow not to repeat their mistakes. This upholds the standard while keeping the door open for redemption. There should be no room for those who claim by their lives and words that there are not, or ought not to be, any foundational principles. They cause harm to their families and their nation.
Los Angeles Times Syndicate