Editor's Letter: Have we set the bar too high?

We've reached the point where our scrutiny of politicians’ private lives prevents intelligent, accomplished people from running for office.

He wrote florid love letters to his wife’s social secretary, and later romanced his own assistant under the White House roof. The First Lady took several lovers of her own, including another woman; to facilitate this arrangement, she and the president slept in separate wings. By the standards of modern politics, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’s unorthodox marriage would render FDR unfit to serve. But in the 1930s, the press did not pry into politicians’ private lives; FDR was judged by what he did in the Oval Office, not upstairs in the bedroom. What a quaint notion. In this more sophisticated and transparent age, Indiana’s widely respected governor, Mitch Daniels, can’t run for president because his wife, Cheri, once left him, married another man, and then came back. Daniels calls their re-marriage a “happy ending.’’ But for him to have a real shot at the nomination, Cheri would have to sit for a tear-filled, squirm-worthy TV interview, begging 300 million strangers to forgive her. She wouldn’t. So Daniels is out.

How did we get from there to here? It was a gradual process, to be sure, but the turning point was the public humiliation and impeachment of Bill Clinton. Under the Clinton rules, in which all sexual matters are fair game, scores of politicians of both parties have been driven out of office. To serve the public, you must have a private life free of messy episodes, unless you’re willing to fall to bended knee and plead for the voters’ absolution. This standard certainly serves to screen out hypocrites and predatory creeps, but it also rules out Mitch Daniels and legions of intelligent, accomplished people who don’t want the scrutiny. I wonder: Have we set the bar too high?

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