Public officials and personal morality

THE withdrawal of former Sen. Gary Hart as a candidate for the 1988 presidential nomination has again raised the question of what should be the appropriate standard of morality for individuals seeking public office. Should a higher standard of morality apply to those seeking public office than to those in private life? How extensively should the media examine the personal lives of American politicians? Many wonder whether concern about the private morality of our leaders has gone too far. Foreign observers often feel that the way Americans probe into the private lives of their leaders is excessive and counterproductive. Others fear that excellent candidates will be driven from the field because of worries over the loss of privacy and dignity. Still others wonder why we focus on personal lives - and slight the policy positions of candidates.

Yet my sense is that some issues of personal morality are important and legitimate for evaluating political candidates. While not every action of the candidate should be open for public scrutiny, the public does have a legitimate interest in activities that could impair the candidate's ability to carry out his or her official duties - or discredit the office.

Such standards seem appropriate for all public officials - and especially for those seeking the office of the presidency. Because that office stands at the center of our governmental process, the individual holding it should be a person of good character who exercises sound judgment and speaks candidly to the American people.

Are we thus applying a different standard of morality to public officials? In one sense, no. The kinds of standards we apply to public officials, such as veracity or fidelity, obviously apply to other people as well. However, because top government officials exercise such influence over the country as a whole, we probably do, and should, apply a higher degree of accountability to their conduct. We have come to expect that our leaders will exercise good judgment and candor in both their public and private lives.

As I travel around southern Indiana, I have found that many Hoosiers want their political leaders to possess sound character, virtually above any other trait. To many, an individual's character is much more important than his or her specific positions on policy issues. If what counts is character, few actions show it more clearly than how the candidate treats other people. It is appropriate to know all we can about a candidate. If the public possesses confidence in the sound judgment and integrity of its leaders, the effective operation of our democratic system is enhanced.

Several important changes in our political system have contributed to this greater examination of individuals seeking public office, and especially the presidency.

In recent years there has been a widespread sense of moral disarray in the United States. Bothered by trends of selfishness and permissiveness, people have now become more sensitive to questions of moral values and personal character.

The revelations of past personal policy failings by elected officials have made the public more careful to weigh all qualities of their leaders.

The power of our country's leaders is much greater than in years past. In a nuclear age, their actions can have dramatic consequences. Assessing their character is more important than ever.

A more open political system has operated since the reforms of the 1970s. As the selection of public officials has moved away from smoke-filled rooms to forums in which more people are involved in candidate selection - either through caucuses, conventions, or primaries - individuals are inevitably subject to closer examination of all facets of their private and public lives.

The media, and especially television, have had a major impact. Television presents us with images, personalities, and actions instantly. It enables us to know the candidates intimately and has become the major factor in shaping our views of them. Fairly or not, then, politicians are now held to much more accountability in their personal and official conduct than in the past.

Although the media have played a central role in this closer examination of candidates, they occasionally can become too enthusiastic, as the Hart episode has revealed. Staking out a candidate's home, trailing his or her car, and rushing a story to meet a newspaper deadline seem extraordinary measures in monitoring a candidate's behavior.

My sense is that most people are uneasy, if not strongly opposed, to the tactics used by the media in the Hart case. While character traits need to be addressed, the media must exercise sound judgment about what actions are appropriate, and must recognize that the public is less interested in having them report on some personal characteristics than others. At the same time, all of us, as voters, should show a greater interest in not only examining the personal character of political candidates but also their stances on major public policy questions. In this way, we, too, can begin to contribute to greater restraint by the media.

A number of interests must be balanced in any assessment of public officials and their private and public conduct. These include the need for the full and complete assessment of the character and policy positions of a candidate, the preservation of privacy and dignity of those individuals, and the safeguarding of freedom of the press to inquire about officeholders and political candidates. While I believe that new legislation is not the answer, we should seek to create an atmosphere in which reasonable restraint exists on all sides. My sense, however, is that candidates must be on notice that the public is going to continue to require closer scrutiny of their conduct.

Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D) of Indiana is chairman of the House select committee on the Iran-contra affair.

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