Saturday, December 20, 2014

Smerconish: Scrutinizing private lives scares off public servants

Mitch Daniels would have added some much-needed substance to the national dialogue. His reason for not running for president is a sad commentary on the sideshow our elections have become.

Smerconish: Scrutinizing private lives scares off public servants

Mitch Daniels would have added some much-needed substance to the national dialogue. His reason for not running for president is a sad commentary on the sideshow our elections have become.

I spoke with Indiana’s popular chief executive last week. We discussed how he had turned a $200 million deficit into a $1.3 billion surplus without raising taxes. And how his insistence on drastic spending cuts had played a large part in Indiana’s ability to avoid a dip into the red.

“All in all, it’s a matter of matching means to ends, deciding what’s most important, and doing less of the things that are secondary,” he told me.

Some say Daniels doesn’t have the personality for a national campaign. But I think he could have resonated with a national audience — especially in an election cycle in which some voters yearn for a competent fiscal manager.

Nonetheless, in an e-mail last weekend, Daniels informed close associates that he wouldn’t run.

“On matters affecting us all, our family constitution gives a veto to the women’s caucus, and there is no override provision,” Daniels said in his statement, referring to his wife, Cheri, and their four daughters. “Simply put, I find myself caught between two duties. I love my country; I love my family more.”

Nobody seems to doubt the sincerity of that statement.

It would appear that the family veto was predicated upon concern over scrutiny that his marriage had begun to receive.

After filing for divorce in 1993, Cheri Daniels moved to California and married another man, while Mitch Daniels and the couple’s daughters remained in Indiana. After the second marriage ended, Cheri returned in 1997 and remarried Mitch. Questions about the episode prompted Daniels to release a second statement specifically addressing the media scrutiny of his marital history.

“The notion that Cheri ever did or would ‘abandon’ her girls or parental duty is the reverse of the truth and absurd to anyone who knows her, as I do, to be the best mother any daughter ever had,” he said.

The mere release of such a statement shows just how aware of the burgeoning controversy the Danielses had become despite its irrelevancy to his governing. Whatever the circumstances behind it, that mid-’90s separation had no bearing on Daniels’ ability to restore fiscal stability in the Hoosier State. Indeed, there has been no whiff of impropriety during his administration.

Maybe the lesson, then, is to stop being so puritanical when it comes to political introspection.
And, yes, I’m also thinking of former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Make no mistake: The Governator did wrong. No one can fault Maria Shriver for leaving him.

But how many times have we heard that a politician’s personal failings indicate a likelihood that he or she will also do wrong on the taxpayers’ dime? That certainly would have been the argument made by Schwarzenegger’s political opponents had this news broken before he ran for governor.

But would it have been true?

Schwarzenegger is clearly a flawed man whose public record is mixed at best. But I am unaware of any charge of serious ethical impropriety during his tenure. There’s an argument to be made that his extramarital dalliances had no bearing on his ability to do the job he was elected to do and, therefore, had no place earning such widespread media attention.

One wonders if all this rubbernecking is causing competent individuals with supposed personal baggage to forgo running for office, thus depriving the taxpayers of potentially effective representatives.

The irony is that boorish personal behavior among the political elite may be fueled by the same personality traits that voters consistently seek out in elected officials.

Frank Farley, professor of psychology at Temple University and a former president of the American Psychological Association, believes that many of the factors that make for a successful politician — most significant, a predisposition toward risk-raking — also lead those individuals to behave badly in their personal lives.

Farley says these individuals have a “type T personality” — the T stands for thrill. They’re drawn to unpredictable, high-profile, challenging jobs, making politics the perfect career.

According to Farley, the very qualities that persuade voters that type T’s are best-suited for that business — independent streak, strong will, magnetic personality — can also drive personal misbehavior.

“Personal infidelities should be at least one consideration in our thinking about public leadership despite \[the fact\] that some of our greatest leaders have shown such behaviors,” Farley told me in an e-mail. “A legitimate question can be raised about a leader’s moral authority in the face of such behavior.”

That’s true. I’m not excusing politicians’ immoral behavior, or saying it’s OK for elected officials’ personal lives to be in constant disarray. And, of course, if a private failing leads a public figure to commit a crime or directly inhibits his or her ability to do complete a job, that individual must be held accountable.

But settling a private matter that has no impact on the job at hand should be left to members of the politician’s household, not to the staff or reporters in the statehouse.

Contact Michael Smerconish via www.smerconish.com. Read his columns at www.philly.com/smerconish.

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