This past Saturday, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy stepped down from a career as the ultimate political survivor. The cause of this early resignation? Pure politics: Berlusconi failed to fix Italy’s debt issues and shore up sufficient confidence in the country’s economy.
After reading about Berlusconi’s swift fall from grace, I learned of his shady past involving myriad allegations (and indictments) for crimes ranging from tax fraud to sex with a minor. While accusations of inappropriate and even illegal behavior have multiplied and galvanized over the past few months, it is no coincidence that Italian confidence in Berlusconi’s moral character faltered when his political abilities did. He did not, however, lose his position as Prime Minister due to any one indiscretion or court case — he misstepped in the policy arena, losing the support of Parliament so crucial to fixing Italy’s economy.
I imagined what it could possibly be like to see a politician in the United States survive the same public allegations that Berlusconi kept at bay for so long before his political downfall. Impossible was the word that came to mind. Politicians here are held to a high moral standard. They are expected not to falter, and if they do, we often send them to the political graveyard.
The thing about American politicians’ indiscretions, however, is that they bother me. My irritation and disappointment don’t come from concern about what politicians do behind closed doors: I take issue when unsavory behavior becomes public knowledge. While I wish I could ignore politicians’ personal matters, their private and public lives inevitably merge and turn any mistakes into political roadblocks.
Bill Clinton’s tenure as president is a good example. He was elected after George H. W. Bush saw his approval rating drop from 80 percent to 40 percent on the tail of major tax increases. Clinton was the “Boy Governor,” enthusiastic and smart, with a reform plan that promised to completely overhaul American healthcare. His second term, however, was basically a washout. As soon as the Monica Lewinsky scandal hit the press, all of America was in a frenzied call for explanation. Clinton lied about the affair and, in doing so, discredited the Democratic Party in a country where Republicans already controlled the House.
Do I think that one individual’s private life should have such a sway over public opinion? Not at all. But it’s clear to me that here, the president and other politicians have always stood for a moral code as well as a policy-based one. Pragmatically speaking, a politician must conform to social expectations or face destruction on a level much larger than just one person’s career. Politicians represent, and always will represent, the ideals of their political parties, and scandals will always reflect on those parties.
Indiscretions like Berlusconi’s, if committed here in the States, could not be overlooked or put in a corner until the time to use them as political ammunition seemed right. When scandal breaks out, I expect those on the grandstand running for political offices to be prepared to handle themselves professionally; if they cannot keep their private lives separate from their public lives, they will not be elected and perhaps they should not be.
The media does not have a track record of reflecting positively on politicians who have portrayed themselves as less than professional. It is important that everyone in the country gets to hear about the candidates and their platforms, but depending on the media source, focus goes to different issues. That’s why it’s so vitally important that the candidates keep their less savory personal details away from the press as much as possible, and why I lose respect for those politicians who can’t. I do not hold politicans to a higher moral standard than I do myself or anyone else. But I do expect them to be discreet and appreciate the fact that in the United States, osmosis between a politician’s private and public lives puts political progress at risk.
In an ideal world, legislators and presidents would stand for effective policy and change, and personal lives wouldn’t be of interest to anybody. Personal affairs interfere with policy-making and social reform, and reveal the truth of how fuzzy the line is between the moral and political judgments of America.
Maggie Henry is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Get Over Yourself appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.