Marc Ambinder thinks the senior aides who covered up for the sleazy John Edwards during the presidential campaign should be publicly shamed. Why? Because of the stakes involved in allowing someone as reckless and character-deficient as Edwards compete for the presidency. Excerpt:
A screen too tight drives good people out of politics and sucks in those who are good at covering up their humanness. Some have suggested that the political press should investigate every rumor (impractical) or none (letting the tabloids do their job, which, if they do, will ultimately force the establishment media to kick in coverage at a later date). I am more comfortable with the second approach, but I don’t think it’s sufficient. Having Tweeted my harsh judgment against Edwards aides, I received several replies that admonished me to focus on issues, on policy, and not on personality. Would that personality doesn’t matter; would that character doesn’t effect policy (and it’s not because we say it does — it does). Would that the real would of choices, decisions, campaigns and even voter preferences weren’t changed by the portrait we draw of a candidate, his or her family, how he or she treats his staff.
Once again, we’re back to that old familiar — and unresolvable — question: How much should personal character count in a politician? But I find the question Ambinder raises about personal moral responsibility of a politician’s senior staff to be more interesting. I think we would all agree that someone taken into the inner circle of a politician has a moral obligation to be loyal. When, though, does honoring that obligation become immoral? We’ve learned recently that several top McCain campaign aides were unnerved by how unfit for the vice presidency they believed Sarah Palin turned out to be during the campaign. Did they have a moral responsibility to leave the campaign and sound the alarm? Or was their responsibility rather to serve McCain, and to try to make the best of a situation they believed was poor?
This is not a question confined to politics alone. The Catholic priest Thomas Doyle wrecked his church career to stand up for sex abuse victims publicly, after his behind-the-scenes efforts to awaken the US Catholic bishops to the horror and the dimensions of the crisis got him nowhere. Corporate whistleblowers have risked their careers as well by going to the authorities when the leadership of their companies engaged in immoral and illegal activities. We esteem that sort of behavior, but we don’t often think about the fact that the virtue of loyalty is being compromised by such acts. Of course, loyalty is only a virtue insofar as one is loyal to a morally worthy person or institution. A loyal mafioso does not deserve our admiration.
But don’t you think that few people tempted to be disloyal for morally superior reasons find themselves in situations in which the right thing to do is obvious? What if “Joe Smith” is a senior campaign aide to presidential candidate Sen. Bob Forehead, and he discovers that the senator is recklessly cheating on his wife, and behaving in ways that suggest deeper corruption. He wants no part of it, and confronts Sen. Forehead. Sen. Forehead tells Joe that he, the senator, isn’t going to change, and if Joe doesn’t like it, he can resign. “But if you go public and trash my campaign,” the senator says, “I will ruin you professionally. You’ll never work in politics again.”
Joe judges that Sen. Forehead can make good on this threat, even if his career is mortally wounded by Joe’s potential revelations. Joe also thinks about his critically ill child at home, whose expensive treatments would have to end if Joe lost his job, and struggled to find another — potentially putting the child in danger of imminent death. To quietly leave Sen. Forehead’s campaign staff without sounding the alarm about what a dirtbag he is troubles Joe’s conscience, because he’s putting the nation at risk by staying silent about what he knows. But to go public would be to put the life of his child at risk.
What would you do in that situation? To what, or to whom, would you be loyal? Your country’s interest, or your child’s?
[Keep in mind that I don’t want this discussion in the comboxes to go into partisan politics. Let’s stay on the ethical questions.]