“Can Public Men Have Private Lives?” So asked the Princeton historian Eric F. Goldman in a 1963 New York Times Magazine article that used the furor over New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s divorce and marriage to a younger woman—a very big deal in those days—to ruminate on the news media’s interest in politicians’ personal lives.
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Although the details of the scandal now seem quaint—it’s inconceivable that a presidential bid today would implode because of a divorce—the themes of Goldman’s nearly 50-year-old essay are uncannily up to date. In it, he fretted over the failure to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant character flaws. He worried about the ease with which we scapegoat leaders for their human shortcomings. And he spotlighted the tension between preserving a measure of privacy even for political big shots and upholding the public’s right to an honest appraisal of their behavior.
That tension has again been in evidence lately, during a season of titillating page-one stories: Congressman Anthony Weiner of New York was forced to resign after sending salacious texts and lewd pictures to various online pen pals; former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger admitted to fathering a child with his housekeeper; Senator John Ensign of Nevada resigned after paying hush money to conceal an affair with a staffer; former presidential candidate John Edwards pleaded not guilty to violating campaign-finance laws in covering up his own affair and love child; Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the International Monetary Fund chief and likely candidate for the French presidency, was charged with sexually assaulting a maid in his hotel room and all but convicted in the media, only to have the case get bogged down when more details became known; and David Wu, another congressman, quit the House after an 18-year-old woman accused him of making unwanted sexual advances. This wave of scandals followed on the heels of more than a dozen other sex flaps—some proven and deeply damning, some lacking altogether in real evidence—implicating the politicians Larry Craig, Mark Foley, Vito Fossella, Al Gore, Nikki Haley, Christopher Lee, Eric Massa, John McCain, Jim McGreevey, David Paterson, Mark Sanford, Mark Souder, Eliot Spitzer, and David Vitter.