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With politicians' private lives, where should the media draw the line?

Last week, disgraced former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer — known as Client 9 to the high-end prostitution ring he used to frequent — launched a prime-time cable news show on CNN.

This, as a new movie titled Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer presents a compelling argument that while his problems were of his own creation, his downfall was hastened by political and Wall Street opponents who conspired to take him down.

In Louisiana, U.S. Sen. David Vitter — whose phone number was found in the records of the same ring that serviced Spitzer — leads his Democratic opponent by double digits in most polls.

And Newt Gingrich, who admitted to carrying on his own affair as he excoriated Bill Clinton for much of the same in the 1990s, says he'll make his decision about running for president by the end of March.

I'm half-expecting Mark Sanford, the South Carolina governor with the South American lover, to join him on the ticket.

In the midst of all this came the outburst by Carl Paladino, the bombastic Republican gubernatorial candidate in New York. Paladino was lamenting the media's intrusion into his own extramarital dalliances, and in so doing, he reintroduced a timeless question: When should a public person's private mistakes matter?

Paladino's case is instructive. Before launching his gubernatorial bid earlier this year, he publicly discussed an affair he'd carried on a decade earlier and the 10-year-old daughter it produced.

Fast forward to last month. The New York Post sent a reporter to the house in which Paladino's former mistress and daughter live, prompting a visit from an angry Paladino, who called it "off-limits." A few days later, during an interview with Politico's Maggie Haberman, Paladino demanded: "Has anybody asked (Democratic gubernatorial candidate) Andrew Cuomo about his paramours?"

"When he was married — or asked him why his wife left him or threw him out of the house? Has anybody ever done that? What are they doing intruding on my life?"

The following day, Fred Dicker, the Post's state editor, confronted Paladino and asked the candidate to back up the insinuations that Cuomo had cheated on his (now ex-) wife. The episode escalated into a full-out shouting match, which culminated with Paladino threatening, "You send another goon to my daughter's house, I'll take you out, buddy."

Watching Paladino, I reflected on a recent conversation I had with a man who knows this subject area well, former Sen. Gary Hart.

Hart had his 1988 presidential bid wiped out by revelations that he'd been having an affair with a model named Donna Rice. He has just published a memoir titled The Thunder and the Sunshine: Four Seasons in a Burnished Life — though much to my disappointment, he devoted little of it to what happened during that tarnished bid for the Democratic nomination. I asked him why.

"I know this may sound curious to people. It's just one incident in a rather long and interesting life. And whereas people perhaps in the media and a few others find things like that interesting, I simply put it aside as the reason why I didn't get to be president," he said.

He then lamented a ravenous media that at some point "began to look through everyone's trash and peek in their windows." But he also acknowledged some new lows: "Now we're electing and re-electing people who've dallied with prostitutes and pay off staff members and all kinds of bizarre behavior — much more than anything I ever did."

So I asked him where reporters and observers should draw the line today.

"The standard that got changed I think 20 or 25 years ago was that a public person's private life was of importance only if it affected their ability to do their job," Hart told me. "I think that was a pretty good standard and it permitted some people who are flawed human beings, as we all are, to continue to serve their country."

He also correctly pointed out that if today's wrecking-ball standard had been applied in decades past, the country would have been denied the service of Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy, among others. I agree with him, although I would argue that by his own standard, he was rendered unqualified to serve. A president carrying on an extramarital affair could be compromised by enemies foreign and domestic.

But someone serving below that office, I am not so sure. I don't want elected representatives running around with their personal lives in complete disarray. And, obviously, any criminal activity should cost public officials in both the court of law and public opinion.

Hart's standard — that public officials' private misdeeds are fair game when they begin to impact the job — is the right one. And in the end, inappropriate media intrusions serve only to contribute to the culture of incivility overtaking politics and political discourse in this country. This drains the pool of potential public servants and, in many cases, unnecessarily destroys the lives of those who submit to the 24/7 gantlet.

© 2010 Philadelphia Inquirer

With politicians' private lives, where should the media draw the line? 10/12/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 12, 2010 6:05pm]
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