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Our Country Needs Leaders with Courage and a System that Respects Their Private Lives

Marvin R. Shanken, Gordon Mott
From the Print Edition:
Bo Derek, Jul/Aug 00

Maybe it's time to accept a sad truth: fewer and fewer qualified men and women today are inclined to pursue government service because of the relentless public scrutiny of their private lives. We all know successful people who serve as presidents, CEOs and chairmen of corporations, universities and other organizations, individuals who could very effectively contribute to our country's leadership as elected public officials. But faced with that opportunity, they ask why they should subject themselves and their families to the possibility of vicious personal attacks and public humiliation.  

We're not talking about serious crimes hidden away from public scrutiny. We're talking about youthful indiscretions, or errors in judgment that are the fabric of the human experience. There are people who by all rights could be members of Congress, governors or mayors, but because of marijuana smoking or antiwar protests in college, opt to remain in private life. Or what about the talented people who at one time in their lives may have had some problems in their marriage? Or the businessperson who, with ruthless but perfectly legal strategies, made millions? None of these people see any leeway being given to aspiring politicians with similar experiences. Instead, lives are dissected under a microscope, with the focus on only the most negative elements, or anything that smacks of political incorrectness. Then, the past indiscretions become fodder for negative campaigning by their opponents, and the focus of the media.  

Just look at what's happening today. Businessman Jon Corzine, running for senator in New Jersey, is being attacked for the wealth that he accumulated during his successful career at Goldman Sachs. Senator John McCain's reputation for having a quick temper was used against him in the Republican primaries. Vice President Al Gore and Governor George W. Bush are put under the microscope for allegedly smoking marijuana in their 20s. New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani is being peppered with questions about alleged affairs. All these things are related to personal and private-life behaviors.   It's generally accepted that creative, talented people, the ones with the most drive and charisma, are oftentimes the ones who take the most chances. And, people who take chances sometimes make the wrong choice or commit an error in judgment. Is there anyone who has led a perfectly ethical life, never made a mistake or never strayed from absolute righteousness? Was there ever a person who, from puberty to adulthood, never did anything that could be used against him in a campaign under today's standards? If there is such a person, chances are that he is someone who has never risked anything. One could argue that such a person isn't qualified to lead, because he has never lived.  

Overzealous scrutiny of candidates' private lives leaves us with a pool of politicians whose main talent seems to be a lack of strong opinions, people who are unwilling to take a real stand on important but controversial or unpopular issues. Politics is increasingly about winning votes, not having principles. By today's standards, a good politician is one who can read the polls and adapt his message, not necessarily for what is best for our country, but for whatever will get him the most votes. That's not only a sad truth, but a dangerous one as well.

Every American should be asking where we are we headed as a country. Without significant reforms, will we be left with leaders whose only talent is their ability to raise money? Will that mean that only the most neutral, namby-pamby individual who appeals to the widest group of voters will be elected? Will the media continue to destroy good men and women who otherwise could provide great leadership? We are at a crisis stage, and it's up to each one of us to take a hard look at the political system and the media, and demand leaders with courage, and a system that respects their private lives.

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