At Feministe, I find three links this morning. The first is to a New York Times article about the Clintons and the state of their extraordinarily public marriage. The second is from the very popular progressive blogger Atrios, who is irked that the press is not delving in to the private lives of prospective Republican candidates for president in 2008. Atrios offers a fantasy version of a New York Times article on the likes of Rudy Giulani and Sen. George Allen. A third bit of snark comes from Matt at MyDD, and it deals with the rumors surrounding the marriage of Jeb Bush.
I agree with Jill, Atrios, and Matt about this: the amount of attention devoted to the Clintons and the details of their marriage has been grotesquely disproportionate. Since 1992, the media has asked, in ways subtle and overt, whether theirs is truly a marriage of love, convenience, or some strange combination of the two. I've had plenty of moments where I've felt exasperation with both Bill and Hillary, but I've never ceased to feel that they are both, to paraphrase Lear, far "more sinned against than sinning." The Times article, even though it is fairly friendly to the former First Couple, continues this now fourteen year-old practice of obsessively analyzing what is, in the end, a deeply private relationship.
Though I understand (or hope) that Atrios and Matt are being facetious with their pieces on George Allen and Jeb Bush, I wince whenever rumors about the private lives of public figures are circulated. Yes, I understand that it's frustrating to see the Clintons dissected while others get an apparently free pass; I remember that my disappointment in Bill's behavior during the Monica Lewinsky scandal was matched by my exasperation at the hypocrisy of many of those who criticized him. But the fact that the media is unfair doesn't mean that we need to even the score by exposing the shortcomings, betrayals and embarrassments of other public figures, even those on the far right of the political spectrum.
I am adamant that we should all strive to match our public pronouncements with our public behavior. I'm big on having coherence between language and life; I'm big on the importance of living ethically in all aspects of one's existence. Integrity is important in the bedroom and the boardroom. I'm someone who in the past fell woefully short of the standard; for years my private life was chaotic, my actions selfish, my words deceitful. I live very differently today, and I know how hard -- and yet how essential -- it is to transform one's life.
My faith tells me that we are all called to live lives of justice and integrity. But my experience tells me that at one time or another, most of us will fall well short of our own ideals. People cheat, people take drugs, people lie and steal. This includes politicians, who after all, are merely reflections of the people who elect them. While I hope that everyone continues to strive for integrity, I'm not horrified to discover that folks I like, admire, and voted for fall short of that mark. When I vote for president, I'm voting to elect a new Caesar, a new leader of the things of this fallen world. He or she is not, in my mind, supposed to be a moral exemplar. I'd rather my politicians be faithful spouses, but their sexual behavior is not my concern, and it shouldn't be the concern of the broader culture.
Though living with integrity is vital, failing to live with integrity in one area of one's life doesn't mean that one will fail in every other area. It's possible to be deceitful in one's marriage but yet honest in one's business dealings; it's possible to be a rotten husband but a kind and inspiring teacher. We are complicated creatures, we humans, and we are almost all paragons of inconsistency! This doesn't excuse infidelity or hypocrisy -- but I think we need to accept that a certain degree of contradictoriness and complexity is part and parcel of our broken human condition.
In 2008, I won't vote for the candidate who has the best marriage. I won't be automatically voting for the candidate who has the fewest personal faults. I'll be voting for the candidate who shows the greatest commitment to the communal values I believe in, and I'm wise enough to know it's possible to be committed to values in one area of one's life while falling tragically short in another. For those of us who are on a journey of faith and transformation, we should all be working towards radical integrity in every area of our lives. But while we are hard on ourselves, we must be gentle with others -- even our elected leaders. We are all works in progress, we all have our skeletons in the closet (or dancing on the front lawn). America doesn't need paragons of private virtue as much as it needs skilled architects of public policy. It would be swell if we could have both in one man or one woman, but if we can't, I'll pick the latter.