It isn't enough that we seem to be looking for a wholly virtuous next president in this country and a new Supreme Court justice to match. It now looks as if we are extending a comparable purity test to our imminent Soviet visitor, Mikhail Gorbachev. The question here is not whether Gorbachev ever smoked pot or plagiarized a quotation, of course, but rather whether he is sufficiently virtuous to merit our wholehearted hospitality while he is here doing business, whether we should be congenial or icily reserved and, for some, whether we should be doing business with him at all.
I can't remember a season when the country seemed so obsessed with moral judgments and so little concerned with the purpose (if any) to which they are being put. For even as the minor flaws, major vices and occasional lapses of candidates for public office are indiscriminately heaped together and condoned or condemned in partisan debate, and even as a breathtakingly pointless argument rages over Gorbachev's moral character, the purpose of all the judging seems to escape the judges. Surely that purpose is to decide on the qualification or disqualification of the public figure in question for some office or role or other enterprise. Do the failings that have been unearthed disqualify him for whatever that is? It is the gut question, but somehow it always seems to get away. Instead of addressing it, we all merely stand around going: cluck, cluck, cluck.
I'll start with our own homegrown candidates for public office. If we want saints, we must still concede that not even saints always start out as saints, so defects from the past should at least be understood in terms of the possibility of growth. But, not to put too fine a point on it, surely we do not want perfect people in the governing jobs we are setting out to fill these days. We don't want people so pure and goody-goody or impervious to temptation or free of guile that they cannot understand the way the rest of us, whom they must govern, live or who are likely to lose their wallet and watch and gold fillings when they go into negotiation on our behalf. Our most accomplished presidents, after all, have been at least part -- and sometimes a rather large part -- rogue.
It is true that there are habits that disqualify a person from higher office and should because they reveal a trait -- incontinence, dishonesty, cowardice -- that is both morally and practically disabling. And we have encountered our share of these in public figures in recent times. It is also true that there are single episodes or acts which, even though they are not likely to be repeated, are of a magnitude and awfulness that they too are disabling. Not that in our crazily unselective approach to these things, the tiny often ranking right up there with the huge, we manage very often to identify and agree on which these are. For instance, a lot of people in Congress as well as in the offenders' constituencies seemed to think it was only moderately disturbing a few years back that two members of Congress had been found to be sexually involved with congressional pages -- 17-year-olds -- who were in Congress's charge. It took a whale of a fight even to get them censured. In the day of the unsolicited public confession on Capitol Hill of having taken two puffs of pot, this strikes me as grotesque.
The pages affair in fact is one of the few that needed to be punished and condemned for the record. I am not much for treating public figures primarily as examples (or exemplars) or for assuming that if you don't deprive them of their job for any impropriety or lapse you will be rewarding vice or something like that. I can think of a number of public figures who did good and useful work for the government apart from and despite a storm over their abysmally low and suspect standards in some unrelated matter. But there are misdeeds of a gravity that demands some statement by the society if we are to maintain our most basic, nonnegotiable values, and the case of those two congressmen struck me as one.
This gets you to our foreign entanglements, to Gorbachev in particular and a host of lesser interlocutors and antagonists and scoundrels. Just as it is sometimes thought that if you do not make an example of a public person here at home for some past or minor offense you will be approving and even rewarding it, so it is thought that merely dealing with foreigners whose system and handiwork we abominate is to show approval of their worst deeds and even reward them. Mind you, we are not talking merely "past or minor offenses" here. But still the "reward" notion in this context is just as insidious and self-damaging. It rests on an implicit and wrongheaded assumption that these people must be good in order for us to deal with them.
The prime example in our relatively recent past was our refusal to acknowledge the existence of the Chinese government for decades. There is some point to this kind of behavior if by withholding recognition or otherwise isolating a government you are able to bring pressure for a good cause. But in the Chinese case, by the end, we were just holding our breath till we turned blue. President Nixon reversed this inane policy, for intensely practical geopolitical reasons, in the wake of the Cultural Revolution when the Chinese were engaged in some of their worst human-rights abuses. Interestingly though, because we Americans seem to find it so hard to accept that there is business to be done with any but the noble and pure of heart, the failings of our newly restored Chinese negotiating partners were ignored by almost all the travelers who then went there.
Such prettying up is common to both sides in our various foreign-policy arguments. Tyrants of right and left are tinted like some cheap old photograph and made to look implausibly "beautiful." Why should they have to be beautiful -- or good or high-minded, or closet democrats? When a foreign government has recently committed some heinous deed then it is necessary and right that our government not jump into its arms or continue business as usual, at least for a time, and that it continue to try to undo the deed if it can. But we are not honoring or accepting the values of those we do business with. We don't have to approve of someone to listen to and deal with him.
In the foreign as well as the domestic case, for different but equally strong reasons, we ought to interrupt our thunderous pursuit of every last scrap of evidence as to the vices and virtues of people on the public stage long enough to figure out what we are looking for.