By Henry Stern
One of the perennial questions citizens ask about government is: why is it so corrupt? People who read newspapers, listen to the radio or watch television encounter a steady flow of stories recounting misconduct by public officials or the details of their arrests, trials and, in many cases, convictions. The crimes of Shirley Huntley, Carl Kruger, Vito Lopez, Naomi Rivera and Larry Seabrook have been reported in great detail.
The crimes of politicians can easily be divided in two classes: job related and non-job related. Soliciting or accepting a bribe in exchange for a vote or a contract is job related, while sexual misconduct, such as former Governor Spitzer’s acts, is considered non-job related.
The two categories overlap when the misconduct involves public employees, particularly if they are forced into unwanted personal relationships with their colleagues or superiors.
Normally it is not difficult to determine when unwanted behavior becomes criminal. There are a few situations where responsibility is mutual or difficult to ascertain, but in most cases it is easy to determine who initiated the misconduct. There is a presumption in these situations that favors the employee, particularly if there is a substantial disparity in the age, influence or appearance of the parties.
Cases of personal misconduct raise the issue of why a public official, presumably concerned about his own reputation and likely to seek higher office, would jeopardize his career, his marriage and his standing in the community by a usually transitory relationship which is adulterous or otherwise contrary to the mores of the community, causes grief and embarrassment to innocent family members, and is distinctly unhelpful to younger relatives seeking to enter what is, in fact, the family business.
In some places, particularly in France, there may be long-standing extra-marital relationships which society recognizes to some extent. There are some such arrangements in the United States, which are likely to involve older people who want to keep what is left of their families together without giving up the magic of sex.
How objectionable a particular relationship may be depends on a number of issues. For example, is it long standing or recent? To what extent is the affair a matter of public knowledge? Is it unilateral, or mutual? Has either party lied about the relationship under oath? Is there a financial relationship between the parties, particularly if one is wealthy and the other is not?
A classic case here is the 1960 contest between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, who as far as we know was a faithful family man.
In a democracy, the voters will decide who will represent them. The principal criteria in making a choice between candidates should be competence and integrity. If forced to choose we would prefer an honest philanderer to a manipulative schemer. But that, however, is a distinction we make for ourselves.
It would be better if virtue was concentrated in one person and villainy in another.
That, however, is not always the case. In those situations, we suggest that people use their judgment and vote in a way they believe is in the national interest. One power we ascribe to the Almighty is the punishment of those who have escaped judgment on earth. We Americans should appreciate the freedom we enjoy in this country to make choices, even if the alternatives are flawed. So are we all.