Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Fitness for the '90S: Running for Public Office

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Fitness for the '90S: Running for Public Office

Article excerpt

Americans, the Australian ambassador remarked the other day, seem obsessed with their politicians' fitness for office - and only marginally interested in their performance in office.

I don't want to make trouble for Don Russell, who is fairly new to the diplomacy game. It was, after all, an offhand remark at an informal lunch. But it did strike me as one of those cultural insights that can only come from an outsider.

The ambassador had come to the lunch direct from the televised Senate Banking Committee's grilling of Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger Altman, and no doubt Whitewater was very much on his mind. But what fascinated him was not the question of Altman's truthfulness ("Lying to parliament is a most serious offense in Australia," he noted) but the implication that the packet of charges, innuendoes and alleged ethical/legal lapses that constitute Whitewater is important primarily because it sheds light on President Bill Clinton's fitness for office.

In other places, he suggested, people - including the press - seem more interested in how well officeholders do what they were elected to do. And if they do it reasonably well, personal lapses (at least those that fall short of criminality) tend not to raise much dust. In America, by contrast, fitness is the overriding consideration, not merely in election campaigns but in governance.

Moreover, fitness involves a range of personal behavior that our friends abroad must find bewildering: from marital infidelity to youthful pot-smoking.

I'm reminded of something Andrew Young said in a recent speech: that if Thomas Jefferson were around today, the papers would be so full of his slaveholding, his alleged womanizing and extramarital progeny that he would find it impossible to play the extraordinary role he had in forging America's democracy.

Young didn't say, but might have, that Martin Luther King Jr., to whom he was a chief lieutenant, might also have been destroyed by today's media fixation on personal morality - and that the nation would surely have been the worse for it.

What is the source of this new attitude? Can anything - should anything - be done about it?

I'm old enough to remember when reporters routinely knew more than they reported about politicians' shortcomings: a congressman's sometimes-public drunkenness, a president's penchant for fanny-pinching, the womanizing tendencies of any number of highly placed public men. …

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