Jules Witcover wrote an article, “The public’s need to know – or not”, a couple of weeks ago for the Chicago Tribune about the resignation of General David Petraeus. Mr. Witcover, a veteran journalist, posed the following question, “Should a public figure be judged and punished in the public arena for private behavior?”
This isn’t the first time that a public servant has had extramarital shenanigans. “Scandals” involving public figures have a long history and include presidents, congressmen, senators, and governers. Mr. Witcover posits that the public’s preoccupation with the rapid bathos of these individuals as well as the media’s enthusiasm to vilify their personal conduct are used to connote a lack of professional competence. But should a public figure’s private behavior be used to discredit years of laudable service?
I think that one reason for the acrimonious response from the media and public is that there is this perception that those in public office or public service should be held to higher personal standards than those people in private service. But is the electrician or accountant who has extramarital relations really any different than the teacher or senator or CIA Director who steps out on his or her spouse? I would say that there is no difference. Each are susceptible to the temptations that arise with close proximity, companionship, and lack of communication with their significant other. The difference is that the public expects public servants to be beyond temptation, to not make mistakes, basically, to not be human.
The second reason for this response is that people enjoy watching someone’s fall from grace or position. There are also those who thrive on delivering public servants to the career ending gallows, complete with inaccuracies, perversions, and embellishments, in order to placate the righteous horde’s desire to bear witness, with feigned outrage, to the tragedy and misfortune of these once esteemed servants. Mainstream and social media are used to shock and awe the masses, which often undermines any possibility of redemption and results in that servant’s resignation. Their past service is irrelevant, they are only judged by their one act of weakness. They are judged by their one act of being human.
It is interesting that that we expect these servants to be above reproach. It’s as if being elected or holding a job in the public sector elevates a person and opens their whole lives to public scrutiny. The same scrutiny is applied to professional athletes and celebrities. In this day of instantaneous informational access, and our infatuation with the contrived drama of housewives and summers at the Jersey Shore, is it really any wonder that the media and the populace reacts the way they do? After all, when we’re busy searching for and castigating the faults of others, we don’t have to look at or improve upon our own inadequacies.