Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels’ decision not to run for president offers the perfect opportunity to lament the increasingly intrusive nature of modern politics and to praise politicians who place family considerations over personal ambition.
I think I’ll pass.
It’s true that there is a vanishingly small zone of privacy in political life, especially at its highest echelons. The unseemly scramble for celebrity news to feed what The New York Times describes as the “Gossip Machine” has had a spillover effect on politics.
This no doubt has the effect of dissuading some good men and women from entering public life. But the phenomenon is neither entirely new nor especially regrettable.
America has a rich if uneven history of focusing on a would-be president’s personal life, from the “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?” gossip about Grover Cleveland’s illegitimate child to the eyes-averted attitude of reporters to John F. Kennedy’s philandering.
Former House speaker and current Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich acknowledged this when I asked him the other day about whether things had gone too far. “By definition, if you run for president, anything is on the table,” Gingrich said at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. “Ask Grover Cleveland. Ask Andrew Jackson [who was taunted over a bigamous marriage]. Anything is on the table. I accept that, but I don’t have to participate in the conversation.”
I’d go further: Character matters in politics, especially in a president. The way candidates behave in their private lives is illuminating of their public character; the decision about how to weigh that behind-closed-doors conduct in the context of a larger career ought to be up to voters. Ultimately, the cost of ignoring candidates’ personal lives is greater than the price of probing them.
I have spent too much time writing about the intersection between politicians’ private behavior and public role to conclude otherwise. Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, John Edwards and Rielle Hunter, Mark Foley and teenage pages, John Ensign and his campaign treasurer/wife’s best friend . . . the list goes on. The personal inevitably entwines with the political.
And by the way, it’s not just sex — it’s also money. Gingrich pronounced himself “totally mystified” about the uproar over the $250,000 to $500,000 he once owed to Tiffany’s, the upscale jeweler. Everyday people are probably mystified about how any responsible person can run up a bill that big — or how, as Gingrich claims, you can owe that much money without paying interest on it. They’re going to want to know more, and rightly so.
I regret Daniels’s decision not to run — just not enough to call for a reset of the existing arrangement in favor of more privacy for politicians.
I also regret the way Daniels handled the public rollout of a private decision. For the record, I’m entirely in favor of husbands deferring to their wives. As tiresome as it is to hear officials announce that they are leaving to spend more time with their families, this did seem like the rare case of a politician not seeking a job for the sake of his family. And it seemed rather evolved for a man to be admitting that his wife, and daughters, had the upper hand in decision-making.
So my first reaction to Daniels’ announcement that “on matters affecting us all, our family constitution gives a veto to the women’s caucus” was: Can I get a copy of that?
But then I thought: Hey, buddy, did you have to point fingers? In the Daniels formulation, he is the selfless hero, “caught between two duties. I love my country. I love my family more.”
This makes Cheri Daniels, by implication, the heavy — unwilling to sacrifice her privacy for the good of her country and the benefit of her husband. Once she crawls out from under the bus, Cheri Daniels will always be The Wife Who Balked.
I don’t blame her. No spouse in her right mind is chafing for a presidential campaign. Michelle Obama’s “initial instinct was to say no,” Barack Obama told Newsweek. “I think part of the reason she agreed to do it was because she knew that she had veto power, that she and the girls ultimately mattered more than my own ambitions in this process.”
It’s hard to say no to a spouse. It’s even harder when you say no — and he outs you in a press release.