Too Quick to Pry and Judge?

Christopher BigelowMormon 13 Comments

I don’t necessarily disagree with the points made by BYU law professor Lynn D. Wardle in his Salt Lake Tribune editorial regarding the Elliott Spitzer affair (“Infidelity by elected officials rightfully is a public issue,” March 21). However, I think it’s important to step back and acknowledge that it is within the realm of possibility for a political leader to be both a good leader and an immoral person in his private life.

I find justification for this assertion in the Book of Mormon itself, one of the key scriptures held as true by Wardle’s sponsoring institution. The book of Ether tells us about a man named Morianton who rose to power. “And after that he had established himself king he did ease the burden of the people, by which he did gain favor in the eyes of the people, and they did anoint him to be their king. And he did do justice unto the people, but not unto himself because of his many whoredoms” (Ether 10:10-11).

So while Wardle is certainly right about the importance of example in public figures, perhaps we are too quick to pry and judge when it comes to politicians’ personal lives. I say we should keep the spotlight firmly on their public service and be very slow to make an issue of their personal lives. After all, from today’s perspective many of us would agree that Bill Clinton was overall a better leader of this nation than Bush, despite Clinton’s whoredoms in his personal life.

Your thoughts?

Comments 13

  1. I think the issue is clouded, though, when a politician is supporting prostitution. I think many legitimate arguments could be made about why this is a much more serious crime than private infidelity.

  2. I agree completely with the general message of this post, but the prostitution aspect of Spitzer’s situation is inexcusable. It’s much like listening to John McCain court the religious right after hearing him describe how he ended up divorced and remarried. (NOT the fact that he was divorced and remarried, but the manner in which he openly, assertively and unabashedly pursued his 2nd wife while still married to his 1st wife) There simply is a degree of creepiness in the latter and illegality in the former that doesn’t allow for justification and allowance, imo. Those type of actions should play into our assessment of character.

    Also, there is a degree of validity to the concerns expressed over Pres. Clinton’s particular situation relative to the impact on social perception, especially among the young. My oldest children are in high school and college, and I can’t tell you how often they have described their classmates’ attitudes toward extra-marital oral sex as fine “since it isn’t really sex”. That concept certainly existed LONG before Clinton used it as a legal dodge, but the common acceptance and active citation of it among the general teenage population was a direct result of the whole Clinton / Lewinsky situation, at least for those who were relatively young, impressionable and immature enough at the time to not consider and understand the intricacies of the various implications.

    Otherwise, don’t ask, don’t tell is fine by me.

  3. Although I agree with Carl above in that Clinton was about perjury. Although I am not sure why questions related to his sexual relations were relevant to the investigation of a real estate transaction (none of my real estate transactions are half that exciting). Spitzer is all about prostitution across state lines. Both are illegal, yet given the divisive character of both Clinton and Spitzer I am more concerned that targeted prosecution may allow enforcement agencies to bring down elected officals (although Clinton was impeached, Spitzer hasn’t been convicted of anything).

    Remember that Brigham Young was convinced that Pres. Buchanan would be sympathetic to polygamy due to his well know penchant for prostitutes and Heber J. Grant’s attendance (unknown to him, but not to the many other general authorities) at the opening a brothel in Salt Lake City. The public perception of prostitution has degraded over the years.

    I don’t see the impact that his private activities influenced his public judgment. One wonders if he would have been even more effective if he spent more time on the job than engaging in extra marital engagements. I think that Clinton at least balanced the books and kept the country out of war and I would take that anytime.

    I think that leaders should be held accountable for serious offenses, but not prior to conviction.

  4. Ricercar: “The public perception of prostitution has degraded over the years.” Or perhaps one could say the public perception of women’s rights has improved along with their ability to earn a living any other way. (I’m not saying your comment was sexist, just that it glossed over the underlying assumption).

    “I think that Clinton at least balanced the books and kept the country out of war.” Clinton left office a mere 8 months before 9/11. While Bush’s administration could have done a much better job transitioning and sifting through intelligence (a misnomer if ever there was one), we were hardly prepared for a terrorist attack on our own soil. I agree Clinton would not have gone to war with an unrelated country over it, but I can’t agree with any implication that he had no culpability from a “keeping America safe” perspective. Perhaps you will see this as Monday morning quarterbacking.

  5. I’ve always looked at this situation pretty black and white. Since marriage is supposed to be about taking sacred vows and pledging fidelity to one’s spouse, if a man (or woman, for that matter) is unable or unwilling to honor his or her marriage vows, then why in the world should I trust them?

    I thought the funniest aspect of the latest republican campaign was that Romney, with his polygamist roots, was the only one married to his one and only wife. The rest had been divorced and re-married, some based on infidelity.

    Most people who obtain any measure of power get arrogant and think they can get away with anything. And, to top that they are hypocrites as well. Pointing the finger at others while they,themselves, could not stand scrutiny of their own lives. Politicians, in particular seem to have this problem.

  6. The real problem with Spitzer, IMHO, is that if his use of professional prostitutes goes back to his NY Attorney General days, then he was quite literally doing business with one criminal enterprise — paying money and receiving services — while simultaneously prosecuting their competitors (Spitzer prosecuted at least two prostitution rings while AG). That’s corruption, pure and simple.

    I think that Bill Clinton was quite effective in many areas as President — particularly when dealing with a Republican Congress (look how little he accomplished during the first two years of his administration, when the Democrats controlled both the House and the Senate) — but his immorality and dishonesty has profoundly corrupted my party (yep, I’m a lifelong Democrat). Frankly, if the Democratic Party leaders had gone to Clinton as the Lewinsky scandal broke and demanded (and received) his resignation, I believe that the Democrats would have had a lock on both the White House and Congress for a good 10 to 20 years. I’m not saying that I necessarily want that — I also happen to be a very conservative Democrat — but they and the nation would have been far better served by Clinton’s resignation than by circling the wagons.

    I’m mostly amused these days by all the ‘rude awakenings’ that about half the Democratic Party is going through about the Clintons. The evidence was all there as far back in 1992; they just didn’t want to see it. I think the DNC Convention here in Denver this August is going to be very interesting, to say the least. ..bruce..

  7. There’s a lot of hypocrisy in US politics. McCain is now supported by Baptists and Mormons? Really.

    You ought to learn from the Europeans, especially the French, and leave private matters private.

    But of course Mormons have that extra burden given to us by prophets and Mormon culture whereby we are taught to elect honourable men to office so we end up judging who is the ‘honourable’ and who is the creep á la Clinton –even if that creep was a are good politician and governor. So then Mormons elect a GWBush simply because he’s a faithful Christian and since Mormons are Christian-ish, well there, he’s better than the old VP. The fact that Bush was a former serial adulterer and drunk and was only a part-time governor never mattered.

    But then we’re also taught that a nation gets the politicians it deserves, no matter how many countries they invade.

  8. Do I have to go into this again? Please no.

    Look, while the whole Spitzer thing is a mess I don’t think this is a case of anyone being too quick to pry. He got caught because of routine bank software that all banks use to monitor all transactions. His transactions are of particular interest because of his position, and he has greater potential for fraud. He made a few transactions that looked fishy, the bank passed them to the IRS (banks typically pass on about 100-200 a month, from what a story on NPR indicated, and the IRS then investigates a dozen or so from each bank), and the IRS took a look. All very routine. Except that in this case it turned out that Spitzer was making a payment to an illegal prostitution service to transport a girl across state lines for illegal services.

    The only reason this is all such a big deal is because he’d made so many enemies in NY in the first place by prosecuting people for exactly this type of behavior, and because his entire career was based on an anti-corruption platform. People are VERY quick to hang you out to dry when you are shown to be a hypocrit. That’s just how it is.

    Should we be jumping all over politician’s personal lives? I have two minds of this. First, while I agree that there are effective leaders that lead personal lives that are in shambles, I also think that Ether 10: 10-11 is hardly complete justification for saying that this is something to be admired. It is merely saying that it is possible. Of course it is possible. I would argue however that it is the exception rather than the rule. Given a choice between Morianton and Mosiah (or King Benjamin [no bias on my part–no!]), whom would you really prefer? The person who does well in all areas or the person who does well only in public?

    I think this is relevant in the current election cycle because I essentially see this as a matter of integrity: is Hillary trustworthy? Because if she is then her policies really aren’t that different from Obama’s and it is then mostly about style, but if not then the gap between them widens even further. You have to also decide if that matters to you. Until the Wright business came up last week I had no real questions about Obama’s integrity, whereas now I’m not so certain, but either way I think the real truth of the matter is that if you have information about a person available and you refuse to consider the implications of that information completely then you are being foolish. Every piece of information has implications, whether it is personal or public. That doesn’t mean you should dig for every detail of a politician’s personal life, but if it comes to light and you don’t consider it, then you aren’t making a completely informed decision, and you are likely to reach a suboptimal conclusion (actually, you probably will anyway, but that’s a more complex topic, and I won’t bore you with a dissertation on the topic–go read some decision making literature if you’re interested).

  9. Hawkgrrl,

    Thanks for your comments vis a vis the perspective of women’s rights. As a poverty / women’s rights advocate in Canada (formerly), I consider the improvement of women’s rights an automatic assumption; however, I also realize that women’s rights in Utah degraded in Utah following the first manifesto. That societies condemnation of prostitution increased may or may not be directly related to increases in civil rights.

    With respect to keeping the United States out of war and the Clinton legacy, I will entirely disagree. I believe that there was little or nothing, other than competent and aggressive police work that could have prevented 9/11 and even then it is doubtful that would work. War is tool for dealing with nations and peoples, not with organized criminals like terrorists. Clinton was a mediocre president, but the incompetence that followed didn’t help either.

  10. Good points, Chris. I think similar scriptures are to be found in the OT books of Judges, Kings, and Chronicles. Some rulers are spoken of favorably despite their personal peccadilloes.

  11. @ Ricercar (3) – Heber J. Grant attended the opening of a brothel in SLC? Really? I need to hear more about that!!

    In general, I agree with Carlos (7) – let’s keep private matters private. There have been many examples of less than perfect leaders throughout history doing very effective work. Conversely, it’s hardly the case that ‘righteous’ men are going to be better leaders! Of course.

  12. Ricercar: “War is tool for dealing with nations and peoples, not with organized criminals like terrorists.”

    I am in total agreement with this viewpoint.

  13. If a man is unfaithful to his wife, he’ll be unfaithful to his country (and state/city) and job.

    A case could be made that Clinton indeed compromised the financial and security interests of the United States in several areas: he approved the selling of ICBM missle technology (from Loral) to China, and arranged things so that the hard low-sulfer coal at Escalante could not be mined, favoring a foreign company that wanted to sell hard low-sulfer coal to the US. And there were several other moves taken by the Clinton administration that seemed to give encouragement to Saddam in the Kuwait affair, and encouragement to world-wide terrorists.

    The dismantling of our world-wide intelligence network, and the severe diminution of our military (ostensibly in response to the fall of the Soviet Union) could also be laid at his feet. Many analysts saw that there really was no “peace dividend” because the iron fist of the Soviet Union was no longer holding outlaw regimes and the crazy regimes in check. Once unleashed, those regimes then became sponsors of terrorism, absent the controlling influence of the Soviet Union.

    Instead of one big enemy held at bay by the concept of Mutual Assured Destruction, we now face dozens of crazies who likely have no compunction about starting a war with weapons of mass destruction.

    Sorry for the tangent, but to the point of whether a privately unfaithful husband can be a good leader, well, he may be a good technocrat or wonk, but no, if his wife can’t trust him, then neither should the rest of us.

    Perhaps a distinction could be made to differentiate those who have momentary lapses in unique circumstances from those, such as Clinton and Spitzer, who have long-term patterns.

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