Politicians Who Sinned Can Come Back, Provided Humiliating Public Contrition And Pleas For Forgiveness Does private conduct matter a lot in determining fitness for public office? Why do voters believe those who apologize?

By Paolo von Schirach

July 25, 2013

WASHINGTON – America lost whatever yardstick it had for evaluating the character of people seeking public office. Once upon a time, private conduct was off-limits. Now, nothing is off-limits, and at the same time there is an absurd demand for spotless “perfection” whereby a speeding ticket in someone’s record may invite speculation as to his/her recklessness and therefore reliability as an elected leader.

Spectacular failures

But then we have spectacular personal conduct failures, usually involving sex and extramarital affairs, (New York Governor Elliot Spitzer, Congressman Anthony Weiner, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, former CIA Director David Petraeus), followed however by an established ritual of pathetic and frankly ridiculous levels of public contrition, a brief period of atonement and –presto– the former sinner is back, as good as new, ready to devote his life to his true calling: “serving the people“.

Fake apologies

My take is that the human weaknesses revealed by these scandals are real, even though it is hard to say how much they tell us about Mr. X fitness for public office. But what worries me are the fake, ritualized public confessions, the “must have” stoic spouse at the side of the sinner during a packed press conference in which she publicly and solemnly states that she has forgiven him, this way allowing (in fact inviting) the whole country to follow suit.

There is nothing sincere in any of this. The contrition is fake, the apology is fake and so is the public support (that later on becomes the imprimatur of political viability) provided by a complicit spouse. As a result, the whole thing has the authenticity of TV Wrestling Matches. It becomes silly entertainment. The professional politicians know this. They play the script provided by their PR people and are confident that, as long as they go through the motions showing “genuine” contrition, all will be well and they will be forgiven.

I do not know what to say about all this insincerity. Again, it would be foolish to think that once upon a time all elected officials were virtuous. We just did not know much about their private affairs, and so their public persona appeared much better than it was.

Absurdly high moral standards, or no standard?

But now we want to know “everything“, as if everything really mattered. Still, in the end nothing really matters, because when someone gets caught in the act a good show of public contrition with a mandatory plea for forgiveness washes everything away.

And so as a society we seem to waver between absurdly high moral standards and no standards at all.



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