Should presidential candidates be held to a higher standard of conduct than the rest of us?
The historian Alan Brinkley has a thought: Maybe they should be held to a lower standard than the rest of us.
Brinkley reasons thus: The kind of man willing to do the things required to get himself elected president is, of necessity, a nastier and less moral specimen than the average citizen. Perhaps we should cut him an extra yard or two of slack.
I listened to this argument actually, just a glimmering throwaway line during a forum of presidential historians last night at the New York Public Library, an assemblage that included Lyndon Johnson's biographer Robert Caro; Edmund Morris, who did Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, and Jean Baker, biographer of Adlai Stevenson.
While considering Brinkley's thought, my eye wandered to the front page of Thursday's New York Times. There, splashed across three prominent columns in prime acreage above the fold, the Times presented this story: "GIULIANI TO SEEK SEPARATION FROM WIFE OF 16 YEARS: Tearful Hanover Says She Tried to Keep the Couple Together." Above the story ran two closeup color pictures, big as TV screens one of New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani (looking ashen and hyperstressed, his face cropped tight from combover to chin, with a quote for a caption: "We've grown independent, we've grown more separate over the years; who knows why those things happen?"), and the other of his now estranged wife Donna Hanover, all poignancy and anguish about the eyes, with the pullquote caption: "I made a major effort to bring us back together.... he chose another path."
And Giuliani is not even running for president. I thought to myself: This is surely a small, defining moment in the evolution of the New York Times. Normally "the newspaper of record" reserves that central plot of the front page for news of some seriousness and prestige a war, a merger of corporate giants, Alan Greenspan's blood pressure. But here, in the space set aside for Big History, was the story of Rudy's domestic untidiness all strictly tabloid, from the pix to the quotes to the heds.
On the other hand, who is to say that the story of Giuliani's imploded marriage (coming on top of the recent news of his prostate cancer and of the woman friend he has been seeing behind his wife's back) does not fit the definition of "All the News That's Fit to Print?" As Proudhon remarked, "The fecundity of the unexpected far exceeds the prudence of statesmen." Suddenly a bumper crop of The Unexpected (including disclosure that New York's Roundhead moralist had been committing adultery) had turned Giuliani's bracing Senate race-to-the-death against Hillary Clinton into something like "Days of Our Lives." Soap opera alters history. Everyone except Rudy says Rudy will drop out of the race now. Hillary, whose political career seems to take strange, triumphant energy from the sexual irregularities of the men in her life (parse that karma, if you can), appears destined to become the junior senator from New York, representing a state where she didn't even live until the day before yesterday.
Should Giuliani, or any other politician, be held to a higher standard of conduct than the rest of us? Or a lower standard? And should the New York Times be held to a higher standard than the National Enquirer? If so, what would that higher standard dictate? Should the Times ignore the adultery of public figures? Or run it, briefly, on page A-17?
Or is it the case that this matter of prurient press intrusion and of private lives having public consequences dates back not just to, say, Donna Rice, Gary Hart and the Monkey Business, but to Helen and Paris and the Trojan War? Did King David's behavior with Bathsheba tell us something we needed to know about the character issue? Would you have voted for King David? He did, after all, behave like a louse.