What a crazy state that Indiana is; home to the triumvirate of Dans - Quayle, Coats and Burton. All right-wing politicians. All darlings of the holier-than-thou Christian Coalition. All consistent critics of the Democratic Party. And now, two of them (those still holding elective office) arguably the most vocal Capitol Hill critics of President Clinton's sexual misconduct. And in that vein, if nothing else, justifiably so.
Six years ago, the most famous of the "Dans," then-Vice President Quayle, while campaigning for re-election, made national headlines and even launched a political era of sorts, criticizing television character Murphy Brown's decision to bear a child out of wedlock. Wonder what he would say now that chum and political soulmate Burton has admitted to the same moral failing? If he chastised Burton as an immoral, irresponsible, inept role model, just as he did the fictional Brown, he'd be right.My Democratic buddies in Washington are giggling and guffawing at Burton's admission. They think it is beyond fabulous that a pious right-wing extremist got caught (literally) with his pants down. But I do not share their glee. Nor do I share their hope that exposure of a Republican right-winger's hypocrisy will somehow lead us gently backward in time to a period when politicians' personal lives were their own.
Even though a majority of voters tell pollsters they are sick of hearing about Clinton's admitted extramarital affairs, the fact that future politicians may be made to live up to their moralistic rhetoric is a cultural advancement, not a regression. And it is not one we as progressives should blithely seek to reverse.
Why have politicians' personal lives become fair game for the media? One need only look as far back as the Eisenhower or Kennedy presidencies for at least part of the answer. Consider the makeup of the presidential press corps at that time. I was recently struck by old pictures of the White House press pool (as the press corps are often referred to) showing uniform groups of pale males. Of course a president's like-kind were going to protect his "silly little infidelities." It was not until women invaded the prestigious White House beat in reasonably representative numbers that such behavior was taken seriously, seen as offensive to national standards and became fair game for media coverage.
One reporter who covered the Johnson White House told me that the president would regularly storm back into the press area, rip the paper out of this (and others') reporter's typewriter and scream at him, "I want to see what you all are writing about me." It was only in this sort of locker room, cozy co-existence that men would cover other men without revealing publicly all the women who were being run in and out of the White Houses of President Lyndon B. Johnson and other presidents before him.
Oh yes, there is the school of thought that says, "If politicians cannot fool around, good candidates will stop running for office." But history simply does not bear that out. Rumors of extramarital affairs never circulated during the Ford, Carter or Reagan presidencies, nor during the House speakerships of Thomas "Tip" O'Neill or Jim Wright. Not all strong would-be politicians cheat on their spouses. Those who do simply must make a decision: get a divorce or run for office. But do not stay married, keep cheating and expect the public to put up with it. It is as simple as that.
Burton's infidelity and irresponsibility prove him to be an inadequate public leader. He should suffer the same fate as the president: He should be shamed out of office. The truism for the 1980s was "all politics are local." The truism for the '90s may be that "the personal is political." If we are a society guided by cuckolding hypocrites whose message is "do as I say, not as I do," how far have we come? The answer is, not very far at all.