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Hold Your Fire and Brimstone

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, July 13, 2007

Perhaps because no one else will do it, I want to offer a qualified defense of Sen. David Vitter, the socially conservative Louisiana Republican who faces a bit of a problem.

Vitter admitted Monday night to a "very serious sin in my past" after his phone number was found on the client list kept by Deborah Jeane Palfrey, known as the D.C. Madam. This would not be good for any senator, but it's especially troublesome for someone who campaigned on family values and the importance of marriage.

My defense of Vitter is qualified because I believe that married guys have a moral obligation not to seek the pleasures of "escort services."

Nor do I like hypocrisy. During the battle over the impeachment of Bill Clinton, Vitter wrote in the New Orleans Times-Picayune that if no "meaningful action" were taken against the president, "his leadership will only further drain any sense of values left to our political culture." Vitter, then a state representative, suggested that Clinton was "morally unfit to govern."

But a big part of me is rooting for Vitter to survive because I so want to return to a time when we -- that "we" includes the media -- chose to pay little attention to the extracurricular sexual activities of our politicians. The magnitude of our public problems does not afford us the luxury of indulging in crusades about politicians' private lives, even those involving a high degree of hypocrisy.

Interestingly, the party that has preached loudest about "family values" has the greater interest in avoiding too fastidious an examination of such matters. Kate O'Beirne, the conservative writer, deserves a place in the annals of political commentary for her remark on the divorce rate among the top Republican presidential contenders. She noted that the only one with "only one wife would be the Mormon," Mitt Romney.

The Vitter scandal was unearthed by Dan Moldea, an investigative reporter working for Larry Flynt, publisher of Hustler magazine, who has been on a campaign to expose the peccadilloes of socially conservative politicians ever since the Clinton impeachment saga.

For liberals, there's something satisfying in demonstrating that the sex lives of certain right-wing moral crusaders turn out to be less than exemplary. It's certainly an outrage when straight politicians who deplore homosexuality as an affront to the sanctity of marriage and the family take a less than sacred view of their own responsibilities.

But if we are to get out of this habit of destroying the distinctions between public and private lives, liberals need to give the conservative hypocrites a break.

We should acknowledge that the outing process is erratic and leaves many falls from grace safely shielded from public view. We should also admit that we are tougher on the moral flaws of politicians who belong to a party other than our own.

The essential point, however, is that believing in a wall between the public and the private makes you a traditionalist, not a libertine. The traditionalist embraces a strict moral code but sees it as best enforced in the personal realm. We should judge public figures by how they meet their public responsibilities, and leave it to spouses, pastors, children and friends to praise or punish their private behavior.

This isn't easy. As voters, we judge politicians by a standard that inevitably includes a view of who they are as people. Like it or not, that view is influenced by our sense of their private behavior.

For example, I greatly admired the late Paul Wellstone not only for his boisterous brand of liberalism but also because of the profound bond of devotion, respect and love that existed between Paul and Sheila Wellstone, who were married for 39 years. The Wellstones didn't talk about family values. They just lived them.

In their reticence and humility may lie an answer to our conundrum. Politicians could exercise more care and restraint in their public talk about morality and convey a sense of understanding toward those with whom they have moral differences.

In turn, the rest of us might agree to keep the public conversation focused on the larger questions -- how to proceed in Iraq, how to fix the health-care system -- about which elected officials can actually do something. As voters, wouldn't we forgive a politician many private sins if he or she handled those two issues successfully?

Typically, we make fun of public figures who seek our sympathy by admitting to "sin." But maybe a politician who admits to sin gains a certain degree of humility in the process. Let's grant Vitter our collective absolution and move on.

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