Public and Private Morality and the Politician

by Jack McLean

Published in Gulf Islands Driftwood (1997)

A slightly different spin on the ubiquitous and on-going political crises and personal scandals that have become a permanent feature of contemporary political and social life may be of interest. First a few disclaimers and qualifiers. Since I am not a paid, political pundit, there will be no partisan comment on the steady rain of negative fallout resulting from the repeated failures in the public and private lives of media figures that take place in the capitals of western nations. The professional analysis of such cases involves several large issues, including journalistic ethics, the corruption of the press, media responsibility and public response. Instead, I offer the optics created by a moral and spiritual view of such events.

The morals of public figures generate little interest until some alleged or clear breach of law or rumour of private scandal occurs. Although the public has clearly become jaded by repeated political scandals and sexual indiscretions, it will no longer condone the behaviour of elected officials who are convicted of lawbreaking, immoral behaviour, or who are found guilty of “moral turpitude.”

Political leaders, unhappily for them, are not quite like the rest of us common mortals because their lives are not their own. High visibility is one of the great inconveniences of public office today. The increased vulnerability and mass disillusionment with the political process and the heavy risks and responsibilities of public office have greatly diminished the allure of the political arena. Individuals who otherwise might prove suitable and well-qualified for public service look elsewhere. The strange resultant irony is that the best qualified never present themselves to serve in office.

However, politicians are not public property and they should not be subjected to invasions of privacy. But because of the perks and privileges of office and the management of tax dollars, politicians are necessarily going to be closely observed. And rightly so, for the decisions they make can affect millions of lives.

The close scrutiny of public officials has made it impossible to draw a clear line between the holder of office and the private person. We should have learned by now that the electorate still has behavioural expectations of politicians. Respectable behaviour, not perfection, is required of elected representatives and serious consequences may result from breaches of ethics.

In the early 1970’s, the Watergate break in changed forever the face of American politics by causing a dramatic shift in attitude that would no longer tolerate criminal activities by the government. This about face occurred, not only because the people still believe that no one in government is above the law, but also because they expect public servants to behave with probity.

We are in dire need of credible role models. We delude ourselves in thinking that we do not need them. Role modelling, leadership and mentoring is built into the very fabric of the socialisation process. It begins in the family with our parents who are our first teachers and when we “look up to” our older brothers and sisters or set an example for younger ones. It continues in school with our teachers, in places of worship with spiritual educators and is furthered in the workplace. Athletic skills are honed with the help of mentor coaches.

Like a tenacious ghost that comes back to haunt us, we are being reminded again that credibility and the maintenance of public trust are vital to good government. Broken promises do not serve. Untamed sex has broken hearts, destroyed marriages, wrecked families and ruined careers. Illicit sex has brought down many a corrupt priest and politician. Sex is no trifle, no scant commercial commodity, the cheap recreational sport so carelessly flaunted in the media. Sex can be like dynamite. Treat it with respect, under proper and controlled conditions, and it may help clear the

way to lasting intimacy. Be careless and it just might explode in your face. The monogamously faithful remind me of tamed horses. Without being wild, they can still run free. They have a strength and power all their own.

Truth telling is foundational to both public and private morality. We can never get at the facts of any situation unless individuals are truthful. Courts swear in witnesses because justice cannot be served without it. Truth telling ranks at the pinnacle of the scale of values because progress is simply impossible without it.

Truthfulness does not mean just speaking words that correspond to the facts, as important as sine qua non is. It also means being willing to face oneself fully and fearlessly and to recognize both the virtues and vices that contend for the allegiance of the person who stares back in the mirror. Truthfulness is the first step to change. Without it, transformation cannot occur. But deeds, not words, are the most eloquent testimony to moral integrity — either for the politician, public official, wife, husband or “significant other.”

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