The private lives of public menThursday, July 30, 2020
It was 1963, the year US President John F Kennedy was assassinated. Noted historian Eric Goldman winced as he examined a photograph taken by a journalist of a “bare-chested Kennedy and bikini-clad young ladies”. In the next edition of The New York Times Magazine, he wondered, “Do public men have private lives?”
I think it may have been the Watergate matter which seemed to open the floodgates. Journalists seemed to think they now had licence to invade the private lives of politicians. The excuse they all relied on was that the public had a “right to know”. And we all liked how that sounded. In fact, Dick Cheney, a politician from Wyoming, who had a gay daughter, was widely expected to seek the Republican presidential nomination. But he declined, citing the toll it would take on his family and that campaigning was no longer appealing. He put it this way, “There's a total loss of privacy that goes with being a candidate for public office these days; it's hard to watch what's happened with Clinton and not think it's gotten worse.”
So what happened to (Bill) Clinton? He had turned the Republican candidate, George H W Bush, into a one-term president, stormed into the White House with his wife, Hillary, both bright young lawyers, and Republicans were fuming. It was not long before Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich put a plan in place to make his presidency difficult. They started with an investigation into his finances. That started in 1998. Four years later, they had nothing. But they did not give up. A new investigator, Ken Starr, took over. Another three and a half years later, nothing still. Then word came that Clinton was having an affair with a White House intern. For the next six months Starr spent US$6.2 million on this matter — the most expensive in US history. When I read the results of the interrogation of the woman, Monica Lewinsky, I got the distinct impression that Starr was collecting information to write a story for a porn magazine. Who did what, where, how. I could understand that there would be some public concern if it were a young, innocent teenager who had been tricked, trapped, and assaulted, then threatened to keep silent. But these were two consenting adults. And, by her own admission, Lewinsky seemed to be the aggressor; even finding herself into the White House, uninvited.
Clinton was impeached, but a Republican Senate acquitted him. So how did this tryst, which was limited to the lady 'pleasuring' him about six times, affect the president's performance? As a president, I mean. You decide:
• largest economic expansion in American history
• more than 22 million new jobs
• highest homeownership in American history
•lowest unemployment in 30 years
• raised educational standards, increased school choices, doubled educational and training investment
• largest expansion of college opportunity since the G I Bill (Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944)
• connected 95 per cent of schools to the Internet
• lowest crime rate in 26 years
• enacted the most sweeping gun safety legislation in a generation
• Family Medical Leave Act for 20 million Americans
• smallest welfare rolls in 32 years
• higher incomes at all levels
• lowest poverty in 20 years
• lowest teen births in 60 years
• lowest infant mortality in American history
• protected millions of acres of American land
• paid off US$360 billion of American debt
• converted the largest budget deficit in American history to the largest surplus
• lowest government spending in 35 years
• more families owned stock than ever before
• most diverse Cabinet in American history
Yet the journalists have never let that thing with Lewinsky go. They have, over the decades, used it to define his presidency; not this formidable list of accomplishments.
And was their position reflective of public sentiment? Newt Gingrich, who was the scandal mastermind, was hustled into political oblivion. Before the matter became public Clinton's rating was 62 per cent. After the impeachment his ratings shot up to 71 per cent. Maybe the “public interest” is not the same thing as what the public is interested in.
Strategists have warned that candidates who declare their personal 'purity' could turn off voters by appearing too moralistic. Perhaps, deep inside they sense a measure of hypocrisy in purists. Last November, Gary Mueller, a Democrat who challenged Republican Jerry Weller, signed an “affidavit of integrity” in which he swore he had never had an extramarital affair, abused his wife, had any homosexual encounters, experimented with illegal drugs, or had been charged with a felony. He lost and was attacked from several quarters. An editorial in The Chicago Sun-Times described him as a “sanctimonious political opportunist trying to impose a sexual code of conduct on politics”.
I do not know Dr Christopher Tufton. He has, however, helped to cement my distaste for representational politics. How? His St Elizabeth constituency is one which caught my attention for what he seemed to be doing for those constituents. When they rejected him, I realised how much of a thankless task representational politics seemed to be.
Each year there is a poll which seeks to get the public's opinion on, among other things, the best performing minister. Tufton has been winning over the past few years. So I took notice; starting with the dengue campaign. I was impressed with his hands-on approach and energy. The quality of his ad campaigns may have been missed by the casual onlooker. But it should be all about subliminal perception, and I think it was — consistent presence with a unified message, everything related to the end goal, no information overload.
They weren't just ads, they were 'experiences'. These required unique skills to be effective — communicating skills, forecasting, analytics. Some of his detractors may be forgiven for not grasping what I am trying to convey here. But you don't do such a fine job after a one-year course somewhere. It requires a combination of skills, including experience. The expressions of approval I mentioned in the polls are just from the local population.
But with the advent of COVID-19 Tufton received his most severe test. By any measure, Jamaica's handling of this pandemic was a major success. That's not just my opinion; it is the position of the international community. On behalf of a grateful nation, I salute you, Dr Tufton.
However, recently the nation gave a collective gasp when a female journalist found it necessary — on national, prime time television — to ask this minister whether he had been cheating on his wife. The minister insisted on answering and was, thankfully, quite calm and measured in his response. I think this was the same lady who'd had a problem with the Prime Minister Andrew Holness's house and other aspects of his personal affairs. I gather she was taken to court and I guess that matter may now be settled.
The lady in question was on Nationwide News Network later that evening. Cliff Hughes and others tried to find out why that line of questioning was necessary. Eventually, she gave an explanation. In a nutshell, she explained (not her words) that she is a person of high morals and lofty ideals and expects the same of her political representatives.
It is not in my place to chastise this lady for her personal beliefs, nor for her decision to do what she did. And, maybe no one should. But, here again, many questions keep swirling in my mind. Perhaps readers could provide the answers:
* Does having a public career mean that your life belongs to the public?
* Does private morality and eccentricities have an automatic relationship to someone's ability to do a job well?
US presidents Nixon, Ford, Bush (dad), and Bush (son) had no hint of marital gymnastics. But, together, they never accomplished 25 per cent of what Bill Clinton did. Who turned out to be better for America?
There are so many things we seem to be borrowing from the United States, ignoring the clear signals that this is a country that is busy sowing the seeds of its own destruction. I am, at times, concerned about the way some journalists do their work.
I sometimes wonder why certain people bother to associate themselves with politics. They are grossly underpaid, are the frequent butt of cruel jokes and lies. We crave their company and lionise them, begging and borrowing from them. Behind their backs, we denounce them with the vilest of epithets. They are our personal slaves for whom society, rather arbitrarily, deems unworthy of privacy. But it is impossible to grow without freedom from scrutiny of others. Many are qualified and capable of earning several times their present salaries. In this present setting, it is virtually impossible to leave politics unsullied. This is the 21st century. Is there no way of creating 'safe' contracts and monitoring them without baptising all the related parties in some public cesspool? Think! What is this saying about us? Does anyone think about the innocent victims, like the children, who are deeply traumatised by stories of parental infidelity? First, they do not want to return to school. But some never fully recover.
When I was an undergraduate at The University of the West Indies an unflattering story broke about the private life of the prime minister of a neighbouring country. I asked a student from that country about it and he said he did not want to discuss it. That surprised me, knowing how Jamaicans would jump at the opportunity to repeat and embellish. So I asked a few others from that country. And everyone had the same response; they did not think it was a matter for public discussion. Isn't that wonderful?
Speaking for myself, let me say this, I am quite prepared to point any interested party to the best porn sites. I am not interested in the gritty details of my parliamentarians' personal lives. Keep what you know, or suspect, to yourselves.
I leave everyone with this sure fact: Continual probing into the private lives of public figures actually harms the functioning of democracy.
Glenn Tucker, MBA, is an educator and a sociologist. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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