Peter Lemiska
Should elected leaders be entitled to private lives?
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By Peter Lemiska
December 12, 2011

Not long ago, Herman Cain was a clear favorite to win the Republican nomination for President. He was seen as a likeable, yet savvy businessman and a bold straight-talker, a welcome relief from the life-long denizens of D.C., who care more about their own political futures than the future of the country. Cain seemed to be exactly what the country was looking for, until those allegations began to surface — a series of accusations related to past sexual harassment and a 13-year extra-marital affair. He was able to deflect them for a while, but was eventually forced to suspend his campaign.

Long before that, presidential candidate Bill Clinton was caught up in a very similar set of circumstances, yet in that case, it caused little more than a ripple in his campaign. His supporters remained loyal, and instead chose to discredit his accusers, or argue that his peccadilloes were a private matter. It was not until the blue dress, and the ensuing perjury charges and impeachment proceedings, that many began to understand the connection between character and leadership.

While the responses to these two examples seem to reflect a profound difference in the core values of the two political parties, they also raise a simple, but important question: Does the voting public have the right to delve into the private lives of our elected officials?

Most of us accept the concept that workers engaged in certain professions have to surrender some of their privacy. Applicants to police departments and private security firms routinely undergo thorough background investigations, often including polygraph exams. Those entrusted with large sums of money, people involved in the home-care service, even school bus drivers have to undergo some sort of background screening.

For decades, our federal government has recognized the need to vet those individuals entrusted with national security secrets, or placed in sensitive positions. Those people willingly submit to intrusive background investigations, testing their loyalty, their integrity, and their level of personal responsibility. Yes, issues related to moral turpitude are examined, but so are other issues, potentially more serious, like criminal history and questionable associations. Everything in their personal backgrounds, anything that could place them in compromising situations, is examined and resolved. The importance of these investigations was emphasized in a recent Washington Times article highlighting the concern in Congress that Al Qaeda is attempting to infiltrate our military. The monies and time expended to conduct these background investigations are staggering, but they are essential to our national security. Yes, there will always be a few who beat the system, but overall, the screening measures in place ensure a good measure of confidence in the men and women who serve our country.

But to paraphrase an old expression, corruption flows downhill. So what does all of this accomplish, if those at the top, the leaders who direct our military and government workers, those whose decisions and actions affect all of our lives, are permitted to shroud their pasts in secrecy? In a very real sense, they are public employees, our employees, paid by our tax dollars, and we should be entitled to any background information related to their suitability for the office they seek or currently hold.

Many assume that political candidates undergo a screening process by the FBI or some other impartial entity. That is simply not the case. In our system, the voters are responsible for vetting our political candidates. But how do we do that? Do slick campaign ads tell us anything about a candidate's character? Can we rely on a largely discredited news media to expose unfavorable information on a favored candidate? John Edwards was once a strong contender for his party's nomination for the presidency, yet we didn't learn about the affair leading to his misuse of campaign funds until after his political demise.

So unless a Jennifer Flowers or a Ginger White emerges, the private lives of these public figures remain virtually sealed. Even when scandals erupt, we never learn the whole story. As Al Gore reportedly confided to Bob Woodward, the American public knows "one percent" of what went on during Clinton's presidency.

Nonetheless, the voters are generally indifferent about the private lives of our elected officials, especially if they happen to be supporters. There are no demands for a formal vetting process. Voters instead assess candidates' abilities and suitability based on their public personas. Ultimately, they cast their votes for the candidates who look the best, sound the best, and promise the most.

It's been said that power corrupts, but too many politicians have a head start even before they're handed the reins of power. Absent an effective vetting process, voters have to demand more transparency and access to all information and historical documents needed to assess our leaders' character, integrity, sense of responsibility, and, yes, loyalty to the Constitution. Unless we conduct our own due diligence, we lay the foundation for a weak and corrupt government.

© Peter Lemiska

 

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Peter Lemiska

Peter Lemiska is a freelance writer and former Senior Special Agent of the U.S. Secret Service... (more)

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