The overshadowing nature of a scandal

Graphic by Lena Yang
Graphic by Lena Yang

The personal lives of politicians have always been fascinating to the public, especially the public to which that politician serves.  In light of the recent case of Rob Ford, the issue of whether the private lives of politicians matter is again in the spotlight.

Some of the most well-known leaders in history, perhaps most notably past Presidents John F Kennedy and Bill Clinton, have had tumultuous personal lives and successful political careers. Clinton’s popularity has actually increased in the years after his impeachment.

There is no question there are moral concerns with both of these men, but should it have impacted their political careers? Should Mayor Ford’s personal life dictate his success as a political figure?

Many it seems say yes. Personal misgivings, questions of morality, extramarital affairs, and other scandals almost universally mean the end of a political career.

Moreover, politics typically is less important than the scandal. When Bill Clinton was impeached it was not for a political reason or an abuse of power, but for an extramarital affair with an intern.

Almost anyone would agree that Clinton’s extramarital affair was less damaging and less morally ambiguous than Bush’s unilateral invasion of Iraq on false pretenses.

However, abuses of power and political mistakes, no matter how costly, are less of a threat to a political career than personal, moral misjudgments.

Going to war is less career threatening than an affair. That is just the kind of world we live in.

Now, back to Mayor Ford. I am not his biggest fan, but I am also not his biggest critic.

He has done some positive things for the city of Toronto.  The city did come out with a surplus recently, he has tightened spending and avoided several potential labour relations disasters.
Basically, if you take away his poor media relations and questionable moral fibre, he has been an adequate mayor.

But what if these cocaine allegations are true? Does this make him a worse mayor? In no way do I condone substance abuse, especially while holding public office.

It is a serious issue personally for Ford and in addition, he has broken the public trust.  The real question I am asking is whether you would rather have an awful mayor who is a great person and morally sound, or an occasional drug user who is an average mayor?  It is not an easy question to answer, but one that often goes unasked. Another aspect is the legality of the scandals. Nothing

Clinton did was overtly illegal until he lied.

But the original act, however immoral, was likely within the law. It is certainly a slippery slope when we start measuring morals. In the end, what earned Clinton public forgiveness was Hilary’s apparent forgiveness and a genuine public affection for the individual.

Ford has neither a lovable personality nor the oratory skills of Bill Clinton. But he could still make an apology.

So even if I can’t decide whether personal lives of politicians matter, it does seem that the act’s morality typically has more to do with it than the legality. And mostly, it has to do with the PR campaign following a scandal.

It seems to me like somewhat of a game with four variables at play which have to balance each other out. The variables at play are legality, morality, the apology, and popularity.

The more variables in your favour, the better.

Clinton was popular, the act itself wasn’t illegal, he eventually made a good apology, and the only thing going against him was the moral aspect of it all. Sometimes one variable can be enough if the transgression is serious enough.

American presidential candidate John Edwards had some great ideas, stood up for the middle class, and had a bright political future. But, he impregnated his mistress as his wife died of cancer and then tried to cover it up. There is no coming back from that and thus the moral factor is enough.

Rob Ford’s act was illegal and also immoral because he holds public office. He has yet to come clean and does not have the popularity to survive on public support alone.  So if the truth ever does come out and Ford is really a drug user, none of the variables point to a positive conclusion to this story.

I would like to think it could get a whole lot worse than Ford, politically speaking, but unfortunately for him, many other public figures, and ultimately us, politics are often secondary to scandal.

Let’s not be so hasty in jumping on the scandal bandwagon. Let’s not be shortsighted and vengeful but think to the future and the consequences of scandal.

Yes, maybe it was morally  right to impeach Clinton and give republicans momentum going into the 2000 election.

But as I recall his successor wasn’t such a hit himself.

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