When Faults Become All Too Public
I t is interesting the choices our public servants choose to make - to observe how they interpret honor, integrity and responsibility. As the longshoreman philosopher Eric Hoffer wrote, "There would be no society if living together depended upon understanding each other."
Rep. Scott Desjarlais, R-Tenn., said in a recent statement, "My past imperfections have been well-documented and discussed during the last two election cycles by both the media and my opponents. Fourth District voters have spoken and are counting on me to represent them in an independent conservative manner, which I will certainly continue to do."
Desjarlais, a physician who admitted having sex with patients and pharmaceutical sales representatives, and advocated an abortion of expedience, said he had determined that he had grown from his experiences and was perhaps better suited by them to represent the needs of his constituents.
And who among us would want our past imperfections so publicly displayed? Or who, once subjected to so much bandiment by the various galleries who gather for the political spectacle, would so blithely be able to soldier on? Scott Desjarlais? Yes. David Petraeus? No.
Both men were confronted by revelations of personal behavior that shamed them - and have taken dramatically divergent paths to make amends. In both cases their behavior undermines their credibility and makes observers question their judgment and commitment to the people they serve.
Petraeus, decorated general, director of our key intelligence-gathering organization, determined that reports of his affair with Paula Broadwell, a former officer and author of his biography, warranted a tender of resignation.
"I am human," he told The Knoxville News Sentinel. "I don't think I ever put myself out there to be somebody that was perfect. I put myself out there as somebody who wanted to serve the public."
All too human would be a more proper characterization of Rep. Desjarlais.
But it seems particularly jarring to contrast this with the Desjarlais of 10 years ago: "I guess as a physician, I was a fairly objective person," he told The News Sentinel last week of his beliefs at the time. "I try not to be a judgmental person. (Abortion) was just not something that I put as much thought into as I should have, in retrospect."
His views on abortion changed when he remarried, he says, because of his current wife's decision when she became pregnant in high school, got married and gave birth to a son. A heartening story, but is that experience more valid than the ones that led Desjarlais to be "nonjudgmental" and "objective"?
Petraeus, whom many considered, maybe still do, one of the brightest and accomplished men in America, removed himself from the public eye when confronted with the very public revelation of his humanness. He retreated, taking his skill and expertise at protecting America from the public, because he could not manage the dissonance of how he wanted to be perceived and how he behaved. But now, according to a New York Times story, he has hired super-lawyer Robert Barnett to help plot his future return to the public eye.
We make mistakes; sometimes we pay for them. And, unfortunately, in this age, where hubris is more acceptable than humility, we cannot expect reflective examination from our leaders to determine whether the price they've paid is sufficient. The fact that the crucible of public opinion is so fickle that it is more important to have name recognition than integrity allows those who view themselves as "too important" to continually turn up like a bad penny.
We have witnessed since Roman times that the public cannot exercise restraint, worse, that we covet the voyeuristic thrill of bad behavior. It makes it more imperative that as individuals we recognize when self-restraint is required.
It is possible to serve quietly and effectively away from the aggrandizing glare of attention.
Frank Daniels III, part owner of The Pilot and cousin of Pilot Publisher David Woronoff, is the community engagement editor of The Nashville Tennessean. Contact him at fdanielsiii@ tennessean.com.
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