There are reasonable arguments for scrutinizing the sexual behavior of politicians. But what does it get us in the end?
Now that Andrew Breitbart has acquired multiple photos of a U.S. congressman in various stages of undress, adding fuel to a story about an explicit tweet that the media as a whole has obsessed over for days, it's worth asking ourselves whether we should care if Rep. Anthony Weiner, or any politician, engages in sexual behavior that is legal, common, and widely regarded to be immoral. One case for subjecting elected leaders to this kind of scrutiny is that they are role models whether they like it or not. It is important, in this telling, that society stigmatize certain behaviors should they come to light -- there's no reason for reporters to launch investigations into the sex lives of politicians, but once they start to leak out a media firestorm is appropriate.
Here's another argument for strict scrutiny: the public has a legitimate interest in knowing the character of any official who represents them. Perhaps he campaigned largely on being a family man and person of integrity. Or maybe sexual misbehavior tells us something larger. It is plausible, for example, that a man who breaks his marriage vows might be more willing to violate his oath of office.
Reasonable people believe these things. I once believed them myself. But no more. As far as I can tell -- we've all got a depressingly big sample size -- a politician's sexual fidelity in marriage, or his sexual behavior generally, doesn't reliably tell us anything about the integrity he demonstrates when acting in his official capacity. Nor is our moral culture elevated when we focus on these scandals. It is degraded, both because a large amount of the interest is prurient, and because by focusing on the sexual behavior of egocentric alpha males who spend a lot of time traveling far from home (that is to say, politicians) we may even be fooling ourselves into thinking that sexual impropriety is more common than it is, and thereby normalizing it.
Meanwhile, there is a significant cost to obsessing over these things. The opportunity cost, for the media, is covering lots of other matters that are actually of greater import to the public, whatever one thinks of sex scandals. And for the politician in question, scandal consumes all the time he'd otherwise be dedicating to his official duties. President Clinton's behavior was inexcusable, but was the country better off for having its head of state focused on the fallout for months on end? If the press cannot cover sex scandals without getting carried away by their salacious aspects -- and it cannot! -- perhaps it would be better off abstaining altogether than lavishing many times more attention on sexual impropriety than every other kind that's evident in public life.
Weiner is addressing the public later this afternoon. What he'll say is anyone's guess. I hope we get an explanation sufficiently forthright that this whole matter leaves the news by the day after tomorrow. Were I a voter in his district, I wouldn't consider this incident determinative of whether I'd return him to office.
And I suspect that I am far from alone.
UPDATE: In his press conference, Rep. Weiner tearfully acknowledged that he sent a sexually explicit Twitter message that he earlier claimed was sent by a hacker. He insists that he has worked for the people of his district for 13 years, and won't resign over this scandal. He says his primary apology goes out to his wife, though he also acknowledged sending explicit pictures prior to his marriage. "I don't know what I was thinking," he said. "This was a destructive thing to do."
He says that he originally lied due to personal shame, embarrassment, and a desire to protect his wife, but that doing so was a mistake. "I love my wife very much, and we have no intention of splitting up over this," he said. Reporters asked where his wife was, successfully pressed him to apologize to Andrew Breitbart, asked if he had phone sex with any of the women, and inquired as to whether he violated his oath of office. Weiner insisted his failing was a personal one. "This was me doing a dumb thing, doing it repeatedly, and lying about it," he said.
One unidentified man was hustled out of the room after yelling, "Were you fully erect?" Amusingly, that question, no more irrelevant than many others journalists were asking, was deemed beyond the pale, as if prurient curiosity isn't the driving force behind much coverage of this matter.
Several weeks from now, as foreign wars proceed, the unemployment rate rises or falls, and the GOP primaries wear on, does the detailed knowledge we now possess of Weiner's online indiscretions make us better off in any way? Perhaps newspapers in Weiner's district have an special interest in publishing all these details. For folks who'll never have the opportunity to vote for or against Weiner, is this information useful in any way? Having faithfully reproduced the contents of the press conference, I cannot find any point in it, though I haven't had time for reflection.