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When Politicians Misbehave

There are few things the press and the American people love more than a scandal. Sometimes I wonder whether people would pay any attention to politics at all if it werent for its ability to feed our appetite for scandal.

Of course, were not really interested in serious scandals. Most of us think its par for the course when politicians lie about important facts or pursue one policy while they espouse another. Even financial misconduct is seen as part of the game. As much as political rivals try to make hay of that stuff, it just causes most people to yawn and turn the channel.

The scandals we really enjoy seem to involve sex and racism. Its hard to resist a good sex scandal. A few weeks ago we learned that Gavin Newsome, the Mayor of San Francisco, admitted to having an affair with his campaign managers wife. Gavin is divorced, and its no secret that hes had an active social life ever since he got his marital walking papers. But I guess having sex with your buddys wife, behind his back, is going a little too far even in San Francisco.

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Perhaps more than sex scandals, we love racism scandals. When actor/comedian Michael Richards unleashed a racist tirade at a black heckler in a comedy club a moment that was captured on video and broadcast on YouTube the press and the public couldnt get enough of it. Richards apologies turned into a traveling circus that encompassed David Letterman, Jesse Jackson, and all manner of hustlers trying to get in on the act.

More recently, though less dramatically, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden stepped in a very large cow pie with his comment about Barack Obama. Biden called his U.S. Senate colleague the first mainstream African-American who is articulate, bright and clean.

At some point, of course, we have to take these things seriously, at least when they involve politicians we may vote for. But does a tawdry personal life have an impact on your work performance? Is a President who cheats on his wife more likely to lie to voters about important public affairs? Im not convinced the two are connected.

Furthermore, Im willing to bet that Joe Biden is actually a decent guy who does not think that black people are dirty. The big difference between him and the rest of us is that his stupid comments make headlines and are broadcast from coast to coast. God knows what people would think of me if I were judged by the dumbest thing I ever said.

In the end, voters seem to have a large capacity for keeping scandals in perspective. Plausible accusations that Arnold Schwarzenegger had a habit of groping women didnt prevent him from becoming governor. Bill Clintons alleged philandering (remember Jennifer Flowers?) didnt prevent him from being elected president.

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Keeping things in perspective means keeping in mind that nobody is perfect. We should judge people by all that they are, not by just one thing theyve done or said. Yes, some people do harbor racist thoughts. Some people violate their marriage vows and a lot of people have broken the law. This doesnt necessarily mean they should be banished from polite society, and it doesnt mean theyre not good at what they do for a living.

On the other hand, lets not feel too sorry for the Bidens and the Newsomes of the world. Nobody forced them to live in the limelight. And if they want the glory, they also have suffer the humiliation that comes with screwing up when everyones paying attention.