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COMMENTARY : Private Lives and Public Service : Campaign: Unproven personal allegation shouldn't dominate evaluation.

February 08, 1992|RANDALL BALMER | RELIGIOUS NEWS SERVICE; Balmer, who writes frequently on religion in America, is associate professor of religion at Barnard College/Columbia University. He is author of "A Perfect Babel of Confusion: Dutch Religion and English Culture in the Middle Colonies," and "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture of America." and

Allegations of marital infidelity leveled against Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton raise questions once again about the relationship between private and public morality.

How much does the public have the right to know about the personal lives of its elected officials? If indeed Clinton had an affair with a woman who spells her name Gennifer, does that necessarily disqualify him from holding public office?

Rumors about his dalliances and problems in his marriage have surrounded Clinton for the better part of a decade. Although he concedes difficulties in his marriage, the purported affairs remain unsubstantiated. The woman who brought the latest charge had previously denied any such involvement with the Arkansas governor, but when The Star, a supermarket tabloid, came calling with a large check, the former cabaret performer suddenly began to sing.

Any "trash for cash" story appearing in a tabloid that usually runs articles about Elvis apparitions or miscegenation between the human and animal kingdoms instantly raises questions about credibility. Regardless of the truth of the charges, the larger issue is whether such indiscretions reveal anything of substance about the candidate.

Do the personal lives of public figures tell us anything about how they conduct public policy? Not much. Some sexual libertine with a runaway libido might well raise concerns, but the application of puritanical standards to the American presidency would probably have deprived us of the estimable talents of Thomas Jefferson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, among others.

Clinton and his wife, Hillary, stoically denied allegations in The Star, but the governor also declined to say that he had never had an extramarital affair. In an interview on "60 Minutes," Clinton confessed to having caused pain in his marriage but insisted that the details of his private life were, in effect, none of the public's business. Hillary Clinton agreed, speaking eloquently about the need for public figures to enjoy a "zone of privacy" and allowing the voters to decide for themselves whether or not the issue is important.

The governor also turned the issue back on the media when he suggested reporters were applying a double standard by giving credence to the allegations. If he were divorced, he said, and such a liaison had occurred, no one would have thought it worthy of comment. He said he is, in effect, being penalized because he and his wife choose to remain married.

A scan of recent history suggests that private sexual behavior tells us nothing about a politician's ability to govern. Persistent stories of womanizing surround Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, but their administrations remained relatively free of scandal.

There is no credible evidence of philandering on the part of Richard M. Nixon or Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, and yet they presided, respectively, over the Watergate and the Iran-Contra scandals.

Jimmy Carter, as always, remains something of an enigma in this configuration. During the 1976 presidential campaign he confessed to having lusted in his heart--something that the media, incredibly, treated as a news story--although no shred of evidence indicates that he ever acted on those impulses. Whatever the shortcomings of his Administration, it was remarkable for high standards of probity.

That is not to say that questions of character are irrelevant in choosing a President, only that they should be placed in a larger context. Gary Hart's dalliance with Donna Rice, which came to light during the 1988 campaign, did not tell us nearly so much about the candidate as did his response to it. In a strange way the affair made this odd and imperious man seem a trifle more human. But Hart's reaction to the disclosure--first to deny it and then to protest indignantly that the press had invaded his privacy, after Hart had challenged them to do so--raised disturbing questions about the candidate's character, his defiant, reckless behavior and his response to adversity.

Clinton, like any other politician, should be judged according to several criteria--his character, his ideas, his background, his record of public service, the quality of his advisers--not merely according to unsubstantiated allegations. Hillary Clinton is correct: The voters, not the press, should decide.

Each of us brings his or her own agenda to the voting booth, and some may want to hold the candidate to their own standards of morality. Like single-issue politics, however, such a narrow view ignores the complexities of political life and ultimately impoverishes the political process.

If forced to choose between Watergate and a sexual indiscretion or two, there would be, for me, no contest. Clinton, I suspect, is fully capable of sorting out his private life. I prefer to judge him on his political ideas and his public record.

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