[Paul Dubinsky is a law professor at Wayne State University Law School].
For years we have been told that the problem with our politics lies in our public servants. They go off to Washington and forget who put them there. They arrive at the state house and quickly regard themselves as above the law. Decency’s address, we are told, is Main Street. Corruption’s address is Pennsylvania Avenue. So, in this election cycle, as in each one since Watergate, the people yearn for a plain-talking figure from outside the system. We want someone free of personal vice, someone who transcends daily politics and attack ads, someone who personifies the values we want to teach our children.
It is a seductive vision of national salvation. We just need to find a hero on a white horse to set things straight. It is also a dangerous half truth. Yes, part of the problem of American politics today is the venality of some of our public servants, but another part of the problem rarely discussed is that the American people possess something of a mean streak. For all our occasional generosity and capacity for compassion, we enjoy watching other people’s public distress. Each time a public figure gets hauled in front of the cameras to become the object of ridicule, it is really the underbelly of American life that is on display. We see the part of the national character that treats almost anything as sport, the part that takes comfort in seeing anyone wealthier, smarter, or more successful brought low. There has always been a place in American politics for the simple morality play, for tarring and feathering the genuine do-gooder who also happens to be flawed.
What is so bad about an occasional morality play? Is there a danger to the Republic in the gleeful media blitz and Internet traffic regarding Eliot Spitzer and other sex scandals? Yes, there is. It is not just that a Monica Lewinsky affair totally consumes the time and energies of Congress. It is not merely that every time a public official is exposed and brought down, a thousand young people decide to head for careers in the entertainment industry rather than government. It is also that each public lynching propagates two pernicious untruths: (1) that it is realistic to expect to find talented public servants who possess no embarrassing personal weaknesses; and (2) that all vices are somehow equal, that lying to one’s spouse is as bad in a public servant as lying under oath.
The latter untruth is probably the bigger worry. People point to Eliot Spitzer and say that his hypocrisy shows that government officials are the problem and that our government needs to be as small and weak as possible. But the issue is not whether Mr. Spitzer or any elected official falls short of the ideal. Everyone does. Our views about government cannot be overly shaped by disappointment in some of the people who hold office. The issue is what sorts of flaws render a person truly unfit for public office. That is the national conversation that is long overdue. Is a person unfit for leadership because he has solicited sex in an airport restroom? Or is he unfit because, through misrepresentation, he led the country into a costly war? Can we accept senior Justice Department officials lawyers who tell the President what he or she wants to hear? Is having sex with a prostitute more disqualifying than condoning torture or refusing to level with the American people about global warming?