Should candidates’ private lives be considered in political elections? A three-person team including Jonah Goldberg, editor of the National Review Online, convinced a Thompson Memorial Chapel audience last night that they should.
In a debate sponsored by the Williams College Debate Union (WCDU), Goldberg’s affirmative side – which also featured Duane Bailey, a professor of computer science, and Mike Pinkel ’03 – defeated the negative side by a tally of 65 audience votes to 47. Arguing for the negative side were Dale Bumpers, a former Democratic senator from Arkansas, Joe Cruz ’91, a professor of philosophy, and Timothy Karpoff ’01.
The topic of the debate is pertinent to the November presidential elections. Throughout the course of the discussions, the audience signaled its interest by applauding, laughing and directing questions towards the debaters.
The general arguments of the negative side were that the features of an individual’s private life – including his or her recent medical history, sexual orientation and religious and moral convictions – were irrelevant to his or her leadership qualifications. It further stated that personal life was a small piece of a big picture: a great deal of more substantive information, including voting records, party platforms and political philosophies, must first come into play.
In contrast, the affirmative side maintained that no distinction between politicians’ public and private lives exists. Its discussion diverged from the basic question of the debate as it explored the media’s role in giving the voting public a fair image of a candidate. The affirmative speakers asserted that any attempt to ignore personal details on the part of the government or media would be an act of censorship, as it would withhold information from voters and impair the populace’s ability to make an informed decision.
The event began with a discussion of the parliamentary debate format by moderator Nishant Nayyar ’02. In this format, the arguments of the government side, in this case the negative, are interspersed with those of the opposition, the affirmative side.
After the participants were introduced through humorous anecdotes, Karpoff began with the first speech for the negative side. In framing the direction of the discussion, he made a case for the social necessity for a distinction between politicians’ private and public lives. He stated that personal issues are tangential considerations in the election of a public leader. “Look at Jimmy Carter in the wake of Watergate,” Karpoff offered as an example. “He was elected as a moral man, but he made a poor president.”
Emphasizing the irrelevance of personal morality in electing public officials, he said, “Dennis Leary called Senator Ted Kennedy a good senator but a bad date.”
Karpoff also suggested that the media’s presentation of politicians’ private lives is biased, motivated by profit motives. Moreover, Karpoff argued, the prospect that a politician’s life could be scrutinized and distorted in the “national conversation” drives prospective politicians away from the arena and deprives the public of valuable leaders.
Pinkel attacked the negative side in his first affirmative speech by asserting that it would be irresponsible to ignore a politician’s private side. “We’re going to show you that what a candidate does in his private life can and does interfere with the execution of duties,” he said.
He argued that personal indiscretions would be punished for normal citizens, but overlooked for politicians. “It sends a pretty strong message,” he said sarcastically, “if you’re George [W.] Bush, you use cocaine in college, and can be elected president of the United States. In the ghettoes, if you’re caught with cocaine, they’ll lock you up.”
“It leads to hypocrisy and an alienation of the poor,” he said.
Cruz condemned the tendencies of voters to elect candidates with similar values similar to their own. Demographic grouping, he said, was one of “the worst impulse[s] of mankind,” and a travesty to the idealism professed by the founding documents.
In an impassioned discussion of the value of freedom, Bailey cited Americans’ desire for choosing among various aspects of their lives, such as “boxers vs. briefs,” “Netscape or Explorer,” “paper or plastic” and “euthanasia or life” as an argument for an unrestricted presentation of all facts. He also addressed the idea that in a democratic society, it is necessary for voters to elect people with whom they can associate.
The featured speakers added insightful perspectives to the argument. Before addressing the topic, Bumpers lowered the tension in the room by mentioning that “in the company of these speakers, [I’m] hopelessly out of my league.” He began his comments with anecdotes and statistics illustrating that extramarital affairs are extremely common in the political arena, as well as within the American population. Then Bumpers focused on the disproportionate exposure the media gives to politicians’ alleged sexual escapades. He mentioned that ethical infractions were common within elected offices, and that both senators and members of Congress regularly use the trappings of their position for questionable financial dealings.
Bumpers then engaged in a scathing commentary on the press’s lack of civic responsibility in reporting the news. “Nothing is sacred,” he said. “Every indiscretion is bared to the public.”
After the conclusion of Bumpers’ comments, Goldberg prefaced his arguments with a pointed reference to the senator’s criticisms of the media. “I know I’m a journalist, and can be bought to say anything with enough booze and shrimp, but I actually do believe, in this case,” he said.
“I’m struck by the fact that you say that something is not relevant because you don’t care,” he said, emphasizing that a significant portion of the population may wish to examine a candidate’s private life to corroborate his stated platform.
“We use these standards [of examining private dealings] in every other aspect of life. We use them all the time in our hiring practices, and not just in academia. We apply them to babysitters, to pastors, to teachers, to pretty much everybody except used-car salesmen and the president of the United States. It’s foolish not to apply them to politicians because they have great power.” He emphasized the role of politicians as moral paragons. “Shouldn’t we use the standards for the president, the biggest role model, who all children should want to grow up to be like?” he questioned.
At the conclusion of the scheduled comments, members of the audience addressed the panels and responded to their arguments. Based upon the final comments, the audience voted for one side based upon the persuasiveness of the presented arguments.
“I really liked the debate a lot,” said Bob Hemm ’04, of the debate. “I sort of went in with my mind already made up. I just think in practicality it’s impossible to ignore private life, because everybody does it. Ideally, though, it’d be great not to.”