This essay originally appeared in the December 21, 2011 edition of Politics in Minnesota. This is an abbreviated version of that essay.
Does character count? Stories of New Gingrich’s three marriages and Minnesota Senator Amy Koch’s “inappropriate relationship” with a staffer have again thrown that issue into the news. Whether these private acts or activities should be considered when evaluating public officials fitness for office raises difficult questions about where personal character fits in. Is there no privacy for public officials? Is everything fair game for the voters to ponder when selecting or judging candidates for public office? The simple answer is that character matters, but how and under what circumstances is really the issue.
“Character” is an elusive term. In political parlance it seems to refer to many variables including one’s personal conduct and morality. Supposedly Gingrich’s three marriages and Koch’s inappropriate relationship tell us something about fitness for public office. Maybe simply being unethical in one’s private life is enough to exclude one from public office. But it is not always clear how public and private morality connect.
Character, as Aristotle would declare, refers to habits. To do something once–steal–does not make one an unethical person. We all err. None of us are perfect. But occasional falls from grace do not render us ethically bad. However at some point acts become habits–what we do is a reflection of who we are–and we then can be judged to be unethical or bad when it speaks to our character–when it is a habit of the heart.
But judging when transgressions are habits that form character and when they apply to fitness for office is complex. One of the worst forms of character assassination is dredging up something from a candidate’s past as a way to judge them presently. All of us do dumb things when younger that we regret and the mark of maturity is learning and growing from them. We cannot judge our life as if all our choices were made at the present time.
Past choices might tell us something about the present, but they need to be assessed in terms of how we have grown from them. Not to do that condemns all of us to be ever judged from our youth or an earlier point in time that we may or may not have growth from.
When do past bad ethics form a basis of a present unethical character? Here is where the issue of judgment fits in. Many jobs have technical skills that are required for proficiency. Being a doctor, plumber, or electrician come to mind. But many also require the capacity to make good judgments–often ethical choices. This is the case with elected officials called upon to make decisions about public welfare and the common good. Elected officials are not simply delegates voted into office to do the bidding of the majority. They are elected in part as Edmund Burke pointed out to make good judgments on behalf of their constituents. Citizens are not fully informed about all issues because of time and other factors. The purpose of a representative system is to allow public officials to serve as trustees for the people–rendering their judgments in a way that they can act in the public interest. This trustee relationship necessitates good judgment.
The public is most certainly entitled to consider character as it relates to making good judgment when it comes to determining fitness for office. Here is where personal morality comes in.
Does Gingrich’s three marriages speak to his fitness to be president? Maybe. If those marriages speak to his present character and judgment as president then yes. But even more needs to be asked. Americans rightly hate hypocrisy. Saying one thing and doing another is hypocritical. Making oneself an exception to rules of conduct that is expected of others is the core of being unethical and hypocritical. Gingrich’s 1994 Contract for America demanding that Congress be held to the same standards of conduct others are expected to follow was correct. The problem for Gingrich is that his views on marriage, gay rights, and perhaps even abortion seem at odds with his own personal life. His personal character places into play the right of the public to ask how he can reconcile his own personal code of conduct with the political positions he espouses. This connects to his judgment and the former House Speaker should as part of his campaign clarify how all of these relate to his capacity to make good judgments as president.
Similarly, Amy Koch’s behavior speaks to her fitness for office in at least a couple of ways. The allegations are that the inappropriate behavior implicates a sexual relationship with a Senate staffer. Most of us have learned at work that supervisors should not date subordinates since such relationships raise concerns of favoritism, sexual harassment, and hostile work environments. Senator Koch should understand that. Not to do so and to engage in an ostensible sexual relationship with a subordinate raises questions about good judgment.
But more importantly, Senator Koch is married and she led a Republican chamber last spring that adopted and sent to the voters a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages. That amendment rendered a judgment about marriage and the personal morality of others. It is hypocritical that while this amendment was being debated she might have been engaged in a inappropriate relationship at work. Unlike Gingrich where his three marriages and affairs took place in the past and presumably he might have grown and learn from them and he is now a changed person–as he contends–Koch’s behavior is not in the past but now, merging her private and public lives but in terms of the judgments she is making presently as senator and also because of the relationship taking place with a Senate staffer and subordinate. It is all of these facts coming together that place her character and judgment in play.