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Jewish World Review Oct. 6, 2000 / 7 Tishrei, 5761

Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg
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Consumer Reports

The importance of character isn't debatable -- WHILE MOST of the political world was obsessed this week with the presidential debates in Boston, I was concerned with a more humble contest a few hours up the road.

On Monday at Williams College, I debated the question, "Should voters consider the private lives of politicians when they vote?" It's nicely relevant, as we enter the last five weeks of what may be the most tightly contested presidential election in 40 years.

My primary opponent was former Arkansas Sen. Dale Bumpers. Bumpers - having served ably as the clean-up defense attorney for Bill Clinton during his impeachment trial - has a serious stake in arguing that a politician's "personal" behavior should be off limits. I, having a long track record of denouncing the metaphysical tackiness of our commander in pants, have a less-historic stake in arguing that a candidate's private life is a worthy factor for voter consideration.

Putting aside the president's specific icky behavior, the idea that politicians' personal lives shouldn't be relevant to voter decisions is, well, absurd. We take character into account in virtually every sphere of life. From baby-sitters to police officers, employers ask for references and candid appraisals from peers. Why should politicians - the people with the most influence over our lives - be exempt?

Character's an important consideration, and personal, private behavior is a helpful indicator of how someone will behave professionally. It's certainly no guarantee, but if you know a guy is an octopus around women or constantly cheats on his wife, it's not insane to think he will treat women at work poorly, too. And, if he constantly lies to cover up his behavior, it's likely he'll lie about other things, too. After all, Bill Clinton's legal trouble with Monica Lewinsky was always about his lies, not the sex. Honesty and integrity aren't characteristics we can turn off in one part of our lives and turn on in another.

Besides, politicians are the ones who make the biggest deal out of their personal lives. Everyone running for dogcatcher on up - except, oddly, Ralph Nader - brags about his or her spouse, children, military records, hobbies, habits and horseshoe tossing scores as evidence of good character.

Yet, whenever any of these bragging points turns out to be a political liability, the candidates cry foul. When Dan Quayle and Bill Clinton's draft records were brought up in 1988 and 1992, respectively, both men claimed that scrutinizing their 20-year-old behavior was an unfair personal invasion. But why should their military records be out-of-bounds when John McCain's service was central to his candidacy? Are such experiences only "relevant" when helpful to a candidate?

Or take family. In 1992 Bill Clinton claimed that if Americans voted for him, they'd get a co-president in Hillary. "Two for the price of one" he declared. Well, doesn't that make his wife worth scrutinizing? And yet Bill Clinton regularly attacked critics who treated his wife as a political player in her own right.

But the most relevant example today is Al Gore. For years Gore has pimped his family across the political stage like a Bangkok nightclub owner. At 1992's Democratic Convention, Gore weepily testified about his son's hit-and-run injury. In 1996 Gore recounted how his sister died from cancer, inspiring him - he said - to "dedicate" himself to fighting tobacco companies with all his might. This, despite the fact he bragged about being a tobacco grower for years after his sister's death. In this campaign he has used his family members as high-profile props. His daughter Karenna is a campaign spokeswoman and adviser; his commercials boast of his marriage; on national television he kissed his wife so hard it looked like he was trying to swallow her head.

This is all fine, except for the fact that Gore regularly reacts bitterly if anyone mentions his family in any context not of his own choosing. Gore famously persuaded editors at the Washington Post to kill a story about his son's alleged trouble with marijuana at an elite private school. Just last February during a primary debate stage in Harlem, Tamala Edwards of Time magazine asked the vice president about the fact that he sends his kids to private school, but opposes vouchers.

"Why should the parents here have to keep their kids in public schools because they don't have the financial resources that you do?" she asked.

He angrily responded, "You can leave them out of this."

Well, no we can't - and shouldn't - especially when politicians keep bringing them into it.

To comment on JWR contributor Jonah Goldberg's column click here.


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