Honesty Is Essential to Politics

Published July 7, 2004

In the past few weeks, the state of American politics has brought the question of political ethics into sharp relief:

  • The governor of Connecticut, John Rowland, resigned after admitting he had state workers do maintenance work at his personal residence at state expense and accepted a gift of a Ford Mustang from a major state contractor and campaign contributor;
  • Former President Bill Clinton launched a promotional tour for his autobiography, in which he admits lying repeatedly to the American public about his affair with Monica Lewinsky;
  • Illinois Republican Senate candidate Jack Ryan withdrew from the race after a family court judge unsealed portions of a divorce record that included embarrassing allegations by his ex-wife. Ryan had told primary voters and Republican leaders the sealed record contained nothing that would embarrass him or his campaign.

Each of these cases has different facts and raises different issues, but all go to the question of integrity. They showcase the hubris of public figures who think they can get away with acting unethically.

Although too often disappointed, we have a right to expect honesty from the politicians who represent us in government. We don’t tolerate public officials who steal from us–whether by taking funds in an under-the-table envelope, or by steering public contracts to friends and relatives, or by having state employees do personal work on the taxpayer’s nickel.

Rowland compromised his ethics for cash, then compounded the mistake by having his wife publicly claim he was the subject of a smear campaign.

Clinton traded his ethics for carnal pleasure. Hubris led him to expect the American people to distinguish between lies that were bad and lies that weren’t. He saw no moral failing in telling lies if doing so allowed him to win, and no moral failing in inducing Lewinsky to lie for him by leading her on with affection.

Perhaps most intriguingly, Clinton sees the affair as none of our (voters’/taxpayers’/Americans’) business. While he admits he may have owed fidelity and honesty to his wife, he appears to believe he owed nothing to the rest of us beyond doing his job in a serious way and not stealing from us.

But politicians do, in fact, owe us more: They owe us honesty. We give our elected officials a great deal of power over our security, our money, our civil liberties. Because the system of checks and balances that once limited government power has grown weak and ineffective over time, it is critical that we be able to trust those to whom power is given.

If the President of the United States cannot be trusted in his personal affairs and in public statements about them, how can we possibly trust him to handle the responsibilities of office? By having an affair with a government employee, Clinton proved himself incapable of separating the personal from the presidential. Why would we not suspect him of doing that in other, perhaps more important, matters as well?

Unlike the Rowland and Clinton cases, Ryan’s involved no abuse of political power. Most voters, I suspect, care little about his personal sexual preferences. Political figures don’t owe the public anything in terms of their sex lives, provided they don’t break the law; that his conduct was described in a divorce file doesn’t change that.

What does matter to voters is that Ryan lied or expressed poor judgment about there being nothing “embarrassing” in the sealed divorce record. Should we care? The answer again is simple, and “yes.”

Republican Party officials and most primary voters took Ryan at his word, trusting that if the divorce file were opened he would remain a viable candidate. Like Clinton, Ryan believed he could bury the truth with a spirited and aggressive legal attack. Also like Clinton, Ryan saw personal political survival as trumping honesty, to the detriment of the public.

Americans don’t and shouldn’t expect perfection of their politicians. We know there is gray in life. We know politicians are entitled to a zone of privacy in their personal affairs, and that much of their personal lives truly is none of our business. We also know trust is the single most important prerequisite when handing power to elected officials–the kind of look-you-in-the-eye trust that is the glue for most human relationships.

Voters and politicians alike, we forget that at our peril.

Attorney Paul Fisher is a member of the Board of Directors of The Heartland Institute, a national nonprofit organization headquartered in Chicago.