The other night I endured Barbara Walters’ 20/20 interview with Jenny Sanford, crudely titled, “The Woman Who Didn’t Stand By Her Man.” (It’s come to my attention that 20/20 has since changed the title to an entirely more acceptable, “Stand By Your Man?” It’s good to know I wasn’t alone in my ridicule of the original heading.) While half my time was spent pondering the harsh lighting on Mrs. Sanford’s face in contrast to the honey-colored hue delicately gracing Hillary Clinton’s, the other half was spent cringing at at the interview itself.
Not details of The Affair™ , per se. Unless you were living under some rock on the Appalachian Trail, you’ve heard all you ever wanted or needed to know about Mark Sanford’s special, special friend in Argentina. Soulmate, love story, two magnificent “parts,” check, check and, um, double-check. I’m referring to Jenny Sanford’s scorned-yet-faithful-woman memoir written and promoted before the ink has even dried on the divorce papers. I found myself saying, “Jenny, no! You’re doing it wrong!” What would have been a positive look at the woman who stood on principle turned quickly into an unseemly book plug. Anyway, do we really need more information? I mean, we get it.
While the Sanford disclosures differ from other public scandals, is does raise questions of political privacy and propriety for both the protagonist and voyeur. What type of behavior should be expected from our elected officials, and, when those lines are crossed, how much information do we really need?
Before the 1970s, the American public almost never heard about politicians behaving badly. Were we really so much worse off not knowing about the bedroom activities of FDR, Eisenhower, and JFK? And it’s not just affairs—in the 1930s and ‘40s, the media agreed not to photograph FDR in his wheelchair. It wasn’t until Jimmy Carter’s “lust in his heart” interview with Playboy in 1976 that the public felt entitled to know such intimate details. And after Gary Hart taunted the press to follow him around in 1987, we believed all political monkey business was our business.
It’s safe to assume that humans have long been interested in the sensational details of the latest gossip. With the advent of image-based media, the increased sexualization of advertising, and the freight-train of the internet, we’re provided ample material to sate prurient interests. By extension, it appears an impossibility for a culture to be drawn to things tawdry and not be curious about the salacious actions of those we elect.
But, is it wholly improper to have an interest in politicians’ behavior? So many scandals are acted out privately using very public money. Furthermore, we elect our officials on expressly moral platforms, whether that be traditional family-values or green morality. It isn’t surprising that we would take issue with contradictory behavior from the person they sold us on. In business transactions, we’d call this false advertising and be righteous in both investigation and indignation if our precious dollars were wasted on a faulty product.
It appears to be a fine but necessary line between the public right to to information and too much of it (TMI). While we elect men and women to the job, we must also realize we elect men and women. Humans. Humans with messy emotions just like the rest of us. Whether infidelity or other sins, which of us can, ultimately, cast the first stone? McCain concurs and concludes:
We don’t need political tell-alls and memoirs to know that our politicians are, in the end, only human. Trust me, despite the media’s saintly portrayal of him, President Obama is just a man. But if we don’t start drawing a line somewhere about what we have the right to know about our leaders, there will come a day when no one is good enough.
Like any relationship, public or private, we can rightly revoke the contract if breached. However, I doubt we need to write a memoir about our faithfulness or others’ indiscretions to cash in on the collateral damage.