How Should We React to Scandal?
By jim heim
Democratic County Chairman
Today's headlines feature startling accusations of moral failings of prominent men.
A college football program is in turmoil as its leaders are suspected of turning a blind eye toward allegations of longtime child sex abuse within their program. In the political arena, a Republican candidate for his party's presidential nomination stands accused by a number of women of sexual harassment (and, in one case, battery).
How should we view such scandals?
Every Sunday, in churches across America, parishioners are told that people are imperfect, flawed, morally weak. Yet we are shocked on Monday morning to see the proof of that in the news. Should we be surprised? When someone we believe in betrays our trust, our first reaction is disbelief. How could Sen. (the Rev., Coach) So-and-So do such a thing?
Stunned students in Pennsyl-vania staged violent protests when their coach was fired. They weren't supporting child abuse. They were clearly reacting to stunningly unwelcome news about someone they've long revered.
On hearing the allegations by women accusing Herman Cain of sexual harassment, conservative pundits immediately went on the attack with scurrilous remarks about women they knew little about.
Mr. Cain's lawyers now threaten women who might come forward with legal action and are warning them to "think twice." How many more accusers do they think there are? Do they regard workplace sexual harassment as no big deal, or think that women routinely lie about such things, or are they just defending someone they trust?
In fact, we are not very good at judging character. We tend to take people at their word for the most part, and begin to distrust them only when evidence to the contrary arises. How many times have we seen a serial murderer captured only to hear his neighbors talk of how "quiet" and "nice" he was? One might want to avoid nice people for self-preservation.
If we are to elect the best candidates to public office, we need all relevant information. If someone has personal recollections that cast light on a candidate's character, it's vital that we learn of it. We may regard it as trivial, incorrect, or possibly of great import. An informed decision requires full disclosure.
In this regard, our media are often not helpful. The around-the-clock news networks have two states: snooze and panic. Too, they're not very good at reporting complicated stories. Give them an economic issue that could bring the world to ruin, and they'll find someone on each side to say something, but will be unable to give independent perspective. Financial reporting seldom goes much beyond stocks are up, good; stocks are down, bad.
When the story involves sex, they go into overdrive. Herman Cain's presidential campaign has been entirely engulfed in the sexual harassment issue, while ongoing investigations into possible campaign finance violations are ignored, and the relative merits of his tax proposals go unexamined.
(Note to Mr. Cain: Calling the House minority leader "Princess Nancy" at a time you are trying to show how much you respect women may not go well.)
We voters do not have a magical lens to reveal the true character of a candidate. The recent sexual antics we've witnessed by elected officials from both parties, ranging from the heinous to the hilarious, are proof of that. We need to carefully consider all of the available information to ensure that the persons we elect will live up to our expectations.
And when those hopes are dashed (as they too often are), we need to set aside our disbelief and take whatever action is necessary, however painful. While we shouldn't sacrifice what is right for what is convenient, we also have to guard against hasty overreaction. Sometimes forgiveness is the better course.
Here's some advice for anyone thinking of running for office: If you've fathered a child out of wedlock, we're going to find out about it. If you're behind in child support while proclaiming your devotion to "family values," it's going to make the papers. If you've had an affair with your campaign manager's wife, or demanded sexual favors for a promotion or a job, we'll hear about it.
Human nature is what it is, and it's unlikely that we're going to improve it anytime soon. As voters, we have to decide what is important and what isn't as we weigh the attributes of the various candidates. Republicans may well decide that Mr. Cain is innocent of the charges being leveled at him, or that they are not relevant. That is their right.
It's important too, that we broaden our definition of public morality. The phrases "unemployed veteran" and "homeless veteran" should not be in our vocabulary. Fourteen million Americans should not be out of work (half of them so long that they've exhausted their unemployment benefits with no new job in sight). Poverty in America should not be at record high levels at a time when corporate profits are also at an all-time high. That's just not right.
We elect politicians, not saints. It's important not to confuse the two.
Jim Heim is chairman of the Moore County Democratic Party. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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