As part of a tell-all account due to be released in November, former mayor of Toronto Rob Ford’s former chief of staff Mark Towhey claims that Toronto police officers refused to charge the then-mayor for driving under the influence on numerous occasions; instead the officers would escort Ford home. Ford had perhaps one of the most farcically sinful tenures of any public official of the last few years, with a rap sheet that extends from drug and alcohol abuse to accusations of sexual harassment and use of escort services. Few were surprised when his approval ratings dropped. Ford’s fall from grace is actually not the norm for public officials whose vices have been uncovered, however, nor should it be. Politicians should be judged by their job performance, not their
Political figures are placed on pedestals, and the revelation of a vice is often splashed across media outlets. Some vices, like those of Ford, are both illegal and impair judgement, two qualities that would likely impact job performance considerably. But others seem less relevant to the role public officials serve in promoting the public welfare. As others have said, it is unclear why something like evidence of Obama’s smoking should instigate outrage. It’s not as if a cigarette break undermines the credibility of the Affordable Healthcare act, or any other policy an official has run on.
In fact, even a cursory review of recent U.S. history reveals that public opinion of politicians is not significantly impacted so long as their guilty pleasures don’t impair their overall job performance. President Bill Clinton’s affair is perhaps the most famously publicized blemish of any modern public official. This was largely due to the work of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives spearheaded by then-Speaker Newt Gingrich — who had an extra-marital affair of his own. But even during the heat of the impeachment process, which brought forth scintillating accounts of the president’s sex life, Clinton’s public approval ratings soared on the strength of a growing economy and minimal foreign intervention. The presidency of George W. Bush, a devout Methodist, was largely scandal-free, but a disastrous global economic collapse and two long and inconclusive wars abroad tanked the nation’s confidence in him. It seems public approval, when all is said and done, is not too focused on the moral shortcomings of politicians, even the most globally prominent ones.
Politicians in America’s highest office are largely judged on issues related to the economy. In this way, all public officials are like CEOs: their bottom line is what counts. Officials are constantly crushed by the weight of public scrutiny, but if politicians are meant to represent real people with real issues, then maybe a vice is merely a sign of humanity.
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A version of this article appeared in the Monday, October 26 print edition. Email Abraham Gross at [email protected]