Public and private ethics must match

The other day someone defined ``ethics'' in four simple words: ``obedience to the unenforceable.'' It's a definition that casts some useful light on the apparently endless saga of Gary Hart. Last week, the once-upon-a-time presidential candidate rode down from his Colorado home at Troublesome Gulch and into Ted Koppel's ``Nightline'' studio at ABC. There he admitted that, during a 29-year marriage that had survived two separations, he had not always been faithful to the marriage contract. He refused point-blank to divulge anything more specific - to say, for instance, whether that unfaithfulness had extended to his relationship with Florida model Donna Rice. And he insisted that he would not run for president.

So what have we learned?

The most interesting legacy of this curious contretemps springs from a line of argument that Mr. Hart took in his conversation with Mr. Koppel. The former senator insisted that in those areas where the private behavior of a candidate has no bearing on his or her public performance, the press has no right to inquire into it. He was saying, in fact, that there are certain questions that should not be asked.

On the one hand, that sounds perfectly plausible. One hears it said again and again that public figures deserve private lives. Deprive them of that, the reasoning goes, and who will run for office? Does the public really need to know every little detail of a candidate's day? Or is that simply in-dulging a taste for gossip that deserves only to be stifled?

On the other hand, however, the very framing of the issue - in terms of the ``public'' versus the ``private'' life - butts up against some pretty knotty philosophical problems.

What is life? And do people really have two of them, one private and another public? Or does each person have a single life which, however multifaceted and varied it may seem, nevertheless is a seamless web of events shaped by a single character and producing a single individual? Are people essentially actors, playing different roles on different stages, their only identities provided by the script from which they happen to be reading? Or do they carry into each circumstance a basic uniqueness that, like a fingerprint, remains unchanged whether they are pitching a baseball or pushing a baby carriage? Are people what they are, or only what they do?

As the Hart case makes plain, those aren't irrelevant abstractions - the kinds of things that philosophers might muse over but that we real-world types can't be bothered with. Hart has bothered us plenty - and on these very points.

It's right here, in fact, that our definition of ethics proves useful. What does it mean to say that we're looking for ethical behavior in a candidate? It means, in essence, that we're looking for someone who will be obedient not only to standards that can be enforced but also to those that can't. It means that standards will be upheld even when no one is looking. It means consistency, stability, and - however much the concept is scorned in an age of flightiness - predictability. It means, finally, that the barrier between the public and the private will cease to be an all-important distinction.

So are we looking for candidates who have no private lives? Not at all. Paradoxically, we're looking for those who will have plenty of privacy - simply because they will convince us that the private sphere isn't worth prying into. The more the voters feel that there's nothing to hide - that behavior in private is of the same standard as in public - the more they will come to trust in the candidates' own ``obedience to the unenforceable'' - without feeling a need to police them.

For the fact is that, despite Hart's objection, we don't elect two people to each office - a public Jekyll and a private Hyde. We simply elect one. And we'd like to feel we're electing someone who can be trusted to do right even when no one's around to enforce it.

What's the lesson from all this? It's really quite simple. In proportion as candidates demand the right of privacy, we should be suspicious. In proportion as they earn it, we should applaud. A Monday column

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