Character still countsCOLLEEN CARROLL CAMPBELL
He was known in his native country as "the Great Seducer," a presidential frontrunner whose sexual peccadilloes routinely were winked at by the French press.
But only this week, after New York police arrested Dominique Strauss-Kahn for the sexual assault of a hotel maid, did French journalists start focusing their collective attention on his history of undisciplined sexuality. They are finding plenty of fodder for discussion, including an accusation of attempted rape from a young journalist and family friend who says Strauss-Kahn acted like "a rutting chimpanzee" when she attempted to interview him in 2002.
The unfolding French scandal echoes a similar one surrounding Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a brazen womanizer soon to be tried for patronizing an underage prostitute. After years of overlooking his sordid sexual escapades, Italian voters — and, especially, Italian women — finally may have had enough of him. Women in 200 Italian cities gathered to protest Berlusconi in February. In his hometown of Milan this week, the first phase of a mayoral race touted as a referendum on Berlusconi ended in a drubbing for his favored candidate.
While European journalists and voters are beginning to question their laissez-faire approach to the private lives of their politicians, American public opinion appears to be moving in the opposite direction.
The revelation this week that former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had fathered a child with a member of his household staff while married to Maria Shriver resulted in more shoulder-shrugging than shock in most media circles. That reaction resulted partly from the fact that Schwarzenegger no longer holds public office and the affair apparently was consensual. Yet even in 2003, when he was running for office and more than a dozen women accused him of groping them against their will, Schwarzenegger's libertine ways did not stop him from winning in a landslide.
Americans generally remain less tolerant than Europeans when it comes to sexual caddishness among our leaders. Yet our tolerance is growing, perhaps because the list of politicians exposed as adulterers has expanded beyond the reach of our outrage.
From Gary Hart and Gary Condit to John Edwards and John Ensign, from David Vitter and Mark Sanford in the Bible Belt to Eliot Spitzer, Rudy Giuliani, Gavin Newsom and Antonio Villaraigosa on the coasts, tallying the names of politicians who have strayed sometimes seems easier than counting those who have not.
The once common assumption that confessed extra-marital affairs or credible sexual harassment accusations are automatic disqualifiers for the presidency no longer holds. Serial womanizer Bill Clinton proved that when he won the White House handily despite such baggage in 1992, then launched an affair with a 22-year-old intern that led to perjury charges and impeachment but no sustained drop in his approval ratings.
It is one of the ironies of today's political scene that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the man famous for leading impeachment proceedings against Clinton, now may benefit from the laxer personal standards Clinton introduced for the presidency. Gingrich has been married three times, and his current wife was a House staffer more than two decades his junior when he began dating her while still married to wife number two. Gingrich since has experienced a religious conversion and called on voters to forgive his personal failings, including what one friend described as the couple's "nontraditional start."
It's a savvy appeal, one increasingly common among today's scandal-plagued politicians. By casting your campaign as a test of the power of forgiveness, you invite voters to see themselves as magnanimous for overlooking your sexual indiscretions. And, by extension, you imply that voters who refuse to ignore your broken vows are sanctimonious scolds unwilling to pardon sins that even God has forgiven.
There's just one problem with this appeal: It equates a person's worthiness for forgiveness with a person's worthiness for public office. Everyone deserves a second chance, yes, but not every politician deserves re-election. Mistakes have consequences, including the broken trust of spouses and constituents. And for a politician who has exhibited a tendency toward misconduct when in power, the most charitable thing a voter can do might be to refuse him another shot at destroying himself and his family.
As some of our European counterparts are discovering, there is nothing puritanical or petty about evaluating a politician according to his record — not only of laws passed and budgets balanced, but of respect for the spouse he vowed to love and honor for life.
Colleen Carroll Campbell. "Character still counts." St. Louis Post-Dispatch (May 19, 2011).
Reprinted with permission of the author, Colleen Carroll Campbell.
Photo: Kwan Choo, ARPS
Colleen Carroll Campbell is an author, television and radio host and former presidential speechwriter. Author of The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy, Campbell writes a weekly op-ed column for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, blogs on religion and politics for The New York Times and The Washington Post, speaks to audiences across America, and hosts her own television and radio show, "Faith & Culture," on EWTN, the world's largest religious media network. Her website is here.
Copyright © 2011 Colleen Carroll Campbell
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