That was one of the questions that came up when my friend Conor Friedersdorf and I did an episode of blogging heads TV yesterday. More generally, the question was: Why should we care when politicians have affairs? And why should journalists spend so much time writing about them?
Because of the common human aversion to hearing one's own voice, I haven't watched the BHTV episode. But the position I remember taking is basically this: There is little reason to care about a politician's sex life per se, except insofar as (1) he might have used campaign funds (in the case of Edwards) or state funds (in the case of Mark Sanford) to carry out the affair; or (2) his or her sex life implies faults that might bleed into areas of legitimate public policy (e.g., exploitation of an employee); or (3) the politician has broken a law to hide a dalliance (e.g. perjury).** Otherwise, I think it is fair to draw a line between public and private lives, even for public figures.
But I think there is one big exception to this: When politicians pretend that a certain kind of family life is a qualification for office. In that case, I think, they are shifting the standard by which they can be judged. (That's why I thought Sarah Palin's request that the media not cover her family rang largely hollow: She repeatedly brought up her family as a reason why you should vote for her!) If a politician runs for office on the basis of his or her private life, they're either pleading for a double standard, or pleading for it not to be private.
**I guess I have some slightly mixed feelings about # 3. Basic ethical conundrum: Do you have a moral obligation to give legitimate answers to illegitimate questions?
Photo: I used this one mostly because it was the easiest thing to find on Wikimedia.