For a Leader, Which Matters More: Marriage Vows or the Oath of Office?

Reconsidering how we think about public figures' personal responsibilities

Larry Downing/Reuters

I have been musing lately about public versus private responsibility. After David Petraeus resigned from the CIA last month, many people questioned whether he should have stepped down, arguing that his value to the country should outweigh whatever was happening in his private life. I am in the camp of those who think that he absolutely had to resign because his ability to lead an agency of people who are trained from Day One to avoid any behavior that could expose them to blackmail and thus compromise national security was irrevocably compromised.

But I was struck that no commentary I saw ever suggested that he had to resign because of his responsibility to his wife and children. He betrayed his marriage vows to his wife and jeopardized the very foundation of his family; as he himself said, he now has a great deal of work to do to repair the damage.

I do not sit in judgment of his behavior. Many marriages have encountered and survived similar troubles, and affairs can happen even when the parties involved do not want or intend them. And I recognize the importance of some divide between the public and private spheres. But I still wonder why an individual's private responsibilities—responsibilities to spouse and family that married people pledge to honor before a community of family and friends on their wedding day just as public officials pledge to uphold the constitution when they took public office—do not seem to be part of the public calculus of value.

This question is raised even more sharply by a new film I strongly recommend, The Man Nobody Knew, an account of the life of another CIA director, William Colby, by his son and documentary film-maker Carl Colby. We screened it at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton last week and then had a question-and-answer session with Colby. The most compelling character in the film is his mother, Barbara Colby. She never fully knew what her husband was doing but supported him fully and loyally over decades in the belief that he, and thus she, were working for a higher public cause. She stood by him through years of separation when he was heading up the infamous Phoenix program in Vietnam, a program that killed thousands of Vietcong often simply on the word of fellow villagers, and then through an intense and humiliating Congressional grilling over the exposure of CIA global activities after Watergate. Yet after he was fired by Gerald Ford in favor of political "loyalist" George H.W. Bush, he asked for a divorce, to her evident surprise, and married a younger woman. Carl Colby ends the film by revealing that when his father committed suicide (as he believes), he had on him a picture of Carl's sister Catherine, who died of epilepsy and anorexia at age 24. Carl reports that he only saw his father cry twice, once when his sister died and once at the fall of Saigon.

I was left with the impression of a man who tried to do the right thing, by his lights, in the public sphere, but failed his family completely in the private sphere. Before the final credits, Carl asserts that he is not certain, in the end, that his father ever actually loved anyone. I could not help wondering whether a man more capable of love and compassion toward his family would have asked more questions about the wisdom of assassinating so many fathers, sons, and brothers of Vietnamese villagers, whose "support" for the North Vietnamese was often a function of intense pressure or a desire to feed their families.

I recently participated in a discussion with another former State Department official who left her job, as I did, for family reasons. She pointed out that we often hear that a public official "sacrificed" his personal life on the altar of public service. The phrase is used approvingly, indicating that it is a measure of his devotion to the public good. A more accurate phrase would be that he (or she, but historically it has been far more likely to be he) "sacrificed his family on the altar of public service," since his wife and children often bear the cost far more directly and painfully than he does.

On the other hand, as I often pointed out to my sons, and as Secretary Clinton said to them when she met them during my two years as Director of Policy Planning in the State Department, we were all giving up something we valued and needed—time together—in the service of a larger public mission. Members of the military and their families lead the way. One of the great contributions that Michelle Obama and Jill Biden have made is to highlight the tremendous cost borne by military families and to mobilize our support for them as much as our support for the troops themselves. In these situations, certainly for a limited time, children and spouses can take pride in the public service of a parent and use it to foster a sense of collective purpose. Moreover, in times of crisis or great national need, the justification that public service can safeguard the lives of millions, as opposed to meeting the needs of a tiny number of family members, is a reasonable and even admirable calculus.

Still, I cannot help feeling that an important dimension is missing from the public debate about leadership, service, character, and values. As a mother, I find myself using the word "responsibility" more than almost any other. I try to teach my children to take responsibility for their actions: to tell the truth, own up to what they did and the consequences of what they did, acknowledge their obligation to repair their mistakes when possible, and to do better next time. They also have a responsibility to others, through the bonds of family, friendship, community, profession, and shared humanity. Looking through this lens, human responsibilities occur along a spectrum—one that can be divided in terms of personal and professional, or in terms of private and public.

The issue of how these responsibilities should be weighed another raises complex and difficult questions, to which I do not have the answers. But in a world in which men have traditionally taken on public responsibilities and have been able to count on their wives to cover for them in the private sphere, perhaps these debates have been one-sided. Personal or private responsibilities get far less attention or weight, unless they are mediated through the filter of religion, in which case an emphasis on family can be admired and upheld as an example of devotion to a larger spiritual cause.

If we are ever to change the deep structure of the choices facing many women and men, we have to change what kinds of behavior we value and reward. So this is a debate that needs to be had, perhaps not in the context of David Petraeus or William Colby, but at least looking forward. How should we think about an individual's responsibilities to his or her family—children, parents, spouse, siblings, loved ones—versus responsibilities to the public good, however defined? From another perspective, is it really possible for someone to be a terrible person in the private sphere and a good one in the public sphere? Should we value others only by what they choose to show to the world? I welcome responses. While you are sending/posting them, I will cull through the many responses received from men in response to my last post and update you next time.