Public & Private Morality

The other night I watched the trailer for Clint Eastwood’s forthcoming biopic J. Edgar, and as I studied DiCaprio’s scowl as the titular giant, I got to thinking again about our confused discussions about the private lives of public figures. There’s rarely a time when we’re not examining politicians’ peccadilloes, or examining the style or motivations of our discussions.

Currently, the improbable campaign of Herman Cain is threatened by sexual harassment claims. In Australia, the imbroglio surrounding Labor MP Craig Thomson is still fresh, while the bizarre trial of Liberal Senator Mary Jo Fisher continues. But our discussions of political scandals are often as interesting as the scandals themselves.

In a piece for The Drum this year, which would have been highly inflammatory if it weren’t so silly, Bob Ellis charged that there was a dark tradition of ruining the careers of liberal heroes with political correctness. Wrote Ellis, “John F Kennedy, a game-changing Democrat, is posthumously defamed for having girlfriends, and his legacy besmirched… Is sexual complaint being used to bring down left-leaning and Liberal-reformist artists and politicians? Looks like it.”

This is the JFK whose libido transformed the White House into a bordello. The JFK who slept with the girlfriend of Sam Giancana—an infamously powerful mobster—while his brother prosecuted a war against organised crime. So what? So JFK’s serially outrageous liaisons attracted the Sauron-like eye of Hoover, gifting the FBI director a long-list of blackmail-able offences. And here’s the rub: Hoover’s hatred of the Kennedys—and their domestic pursuit of civil rights—became enforceable. Journalist and RFK biographer Evan Thomas, amongst many others, has detailed how enfeebled the Kennedys became because of JFK’s indiscretions.

Don’t get me wrong: this isn’t a defence of Hoover’s remarkable surveillance or an attack on the Kennedys’ legacy. It’s to point out that a liberal insistence on separating the private from the public is simplistic and often stupid.

Unsurprisingly, Bill Clinton makes Bob Ellis’ roll call of thwarted icons, damaged by the right’s conspiratorial attention to the sex lives of “liberal reformers”.

It’s now an article of faith for many that the attempted impeachment of President Clinton was the wretched result of Republican aggression, the kinkiness of American Puritanism, and the congenital deviousness of Kenneth Starr.

It’s also become an article of faith that Clinton’s serial indiscretions had nothing to do with his performance as Commander-in-Chief.

This is a sanctimonious fallacy. While the unctuous Starr was hardly beyond reproach, there were firm arguments for Clinton’s dismissal. The arguments lie soberly beneath the hot air of the Republican’s confected hysteria and Hillary Clinton’s claim of a “vast, right-wing conspiracy”.

Clinton failed to tell close advisers, many of whom were friends, of the repeated indiscretions. He would struggle to regain their trust and effectiveness. Perhaps the most pointed argument for his resignation comes from historian Garry Wills:

What Ross Perot said in 1996 was partly true—that Clinton would be “totally occupied for the next two years in staying out of jail.” That meant he would probably go on lying… Though Clinton accomplished things in his second term, he did so in a constant struggle to survive.

Let’s come back home. Last year’s outing and subsequent resignation of NSW Minister David Campbell in the gay sauna scandal was a sad and sordid affair, for multiple reasons: that Campbell felt compelled to act surreptitiously; that the duplicity may have cleaved his wife’s heart; that much of the political prattling could be confused as a balm for those injured, saddened or confused by this, not least of all by Campbell himself; and also by the predictable dullness of the debate, centred, as it was, on sexual manners.

It’s disingenuous and logically tortured to remove the fact of how we came to know of Campbell’s secret life—a sting orchestrated by Today Tonight—from what we found out. This is difficult moral terrain. A man’s sexual proclivities are his own and if we zealously police them we imperil a very basic sense of liberty. But, however grubbily this story broke—and there were hints of scurrilous motivation—we are in plain view of a man who, sorrowfully perhaps, compromised his high public office.

The banality of this compromise doesn’t make it any less severe. That Campbell was an ordinary politician whose political instincts were crowded out by his libido doesn’t alter this unchallengeable fact: that what we found out jeopardised the high office Campbell occupied—Transport Minister and former Police Minister—by potentially being a tool for blackmail. That Campbell wasn’t blackmailed isn’t the point—the fact that he could have been is. I can’t see the controversy in stating my discomfort with a police minister maintaining a secret life.

What constitutes public interest is a vital, fluid and, hopefully, never-ending discussion. Public scrutiny of less-than-edifying journalistic behaviour should never relax. But there’s another point here: Campbell’s office, like Clinton’s, is more important than the man himself. Campbell’s behaviour—for no other reason than the embarrassment it could (and did) cause him—upsets this.

In Campbell’s case we also arrive at the very adult conclusion of having something of importance revealed to us by the lowest instincts of yellow journalism. We can’t navigate these waters with glibness, partisanship or ideology.

Former NSW Premier Bob Carr wasn’t wrong to say of the Campbell affair that “my position has always been that the private life of MPs is precisely that” and nor did I doubt the sincerity of former High Court Justice Michael Kirby when he suggested the story was “pathetic snooping” undertaken by “serial homophobes”.

But there were—and will continue to be—legitimate counter-arguments, untouched by bigotry, voyeurism or Puritanism, and in Campbell’s case this was articulated by another former NSW Premier Barrie Unsworth: “There is no excuse whatsoever for Campbell’s behaviour… The threat is not from Channel 7 lurking outside but by people inside. We’ve got a criminal milieu in this city and he laid himself open to all sorts of threats and blackmail.”

I’m not arguing for the prescription of unattainably high, and zealously guarded, standards for politicians—a pathetic sort of sterility follows (and is arguably already with us). Like Bob Ellis (I suspect), I have a preference for politicians with out-sized attractions to people, policy, and politics. The vain and libidinous have made superb and inspirational leaders in the past. And I’m not arguing for the regulation of appetite, but for the realisation that the secretly held preferences of our leaders often undermine effective governance.

It shouldn’t ever surprise us that politicians have appetites, and struggle, like the rest of us, with reconciling them with personal responsibility. But as President-elect Bill Clinton said to a friend in 1992, public office is only as good as the people’s faith in it.

One Response to Public & Private Morality

  1. Howard says:

    Reminded of Milton Freidman’s essay: ‘Social responsibility of Businness is to increase profits’ – and the libertarian wedge that drives a neat distinction between public and private, social and corporate, principal and agent – an untenable stance. Robert Solomon writes: ‘Suppose that people are members of society – and thus have social responsibilities – solely by virtue of their citizenship, rather than by virtue of all roles and positions.’
    The language of Australian politics smells of the ferment and rot of fallen fruit. Ben Jonson: ‘Language most shows a man: speak that I may see thee.’ Political language is a fallen language, a varnish to play into the illusion that political professionals are two dimensional, public agents. If politicians want to speak so that the inner life and the beating going on underneath are mere perfunctory operations which occur and are conducive to the execution of public duties – so be it. I’m quite positive that just under the surface of their epidermis millions of libidinal explosions ripple throughout their body, and if you look right into the very back darkest pocket of their pupils you can see them swallow it down without tasting it.
    Let them play in the sandpit they created.

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