I’m sitting in the Washington, D.C. offices of NPR, waiting to go live at 11 AM. with some ethics commentary about the imminent resignation of Rep. Weiner. He is finally doing the right thing for the wrong reasons, just as his Democratic colleagues are defenestrating him for the wrong reasons. Once yesterday’s old photos surfaced showing Weiner in women’s underwear, his fate was sealed…although it was really sealed already. His forced resignation was inevitable, and the fact that the Congressman was unable to see it so that he could preserve some shred of honor by doing his duty as soon as his disgraceful conduct became public shows how wretched his judgment is.
The 56% of his constituents who, according to polls, thought that he should remain in his job demonstrated their complete lack of understanding of the requirements of leadership and ethics. They weren’t the only ones. It has been fascinating, though depressing, to read the comment threads on various websites and blogs covering the Weiner story, because they are so similar in their rationalizations. The categories, and reasons why they are so misguided, are:
- “Lots of the people criticizing Weiner engage in dubious inline conduct themselves; they are hypocrites.” No, they are non-leaders. When you accept the responsibility of leadership, you accept the duties of integrity, honesty, and honorable conduct. Rep. Weiner gave up the right to behave as sleazy as the guy we never heard of next door when he ran for office.
- “Nobody’s perfect.” True, but a married man sending salacious photos of himself to female strangers is so far from “perfect” when the individual is a public figure representing the People’s House that this rationalization isn’t even applicable.
- “Other politicians have done as bad or worse things and stayed in office.” Right. And they should have resigned too. They didn’t change the standards, they just defied them.
- “Sen. David Vitter.” So what? Vitter was apparently the best the DNC could come up with in its talking points memo; the point, I guess, was to pave the road for Democrats to demand Vitter’s head in exchange for Weiner’s exit. It’s almost comical how “What about Vitter?” became the mating call of Democrats during Weiner’s death watch, as if it was a relevent comment. It wasn’t. 1) Vitter’s a lousy comparison. He didn’t lie when his name surfaced on the “D.C. Madam’s” client list. We don’t know whether he strayed once or twenty times. His actions did not result in a graphic debasing of Washington leadership. It was not in the same league of recklessness and creepiness. 2.) Yes, Vitter should have resigned, but there has been an intervening election. It’s too late…if we are going to start using known misconduct predating elections, I can think of about ten House members and Senators of both parties that would be in Vitter’s category. Prominent among them: Rep. Alcee Hastings, a judge impeached for corruption whom his constituency inexplicably believes is fit for Congress. 3) Vitter’s conduct doesn’t justify Weiner’s, and his failure to do the right thing and resign doesn’t make Weiner’s obligation to do so any different.
- “What do Weiner’s sex habits have to do with his ability to do his job?” Ugh. We have known, and behavioral science has known, and history has confirmed over and over again, that the observed conduct and perceived character of leaders have a profound effect on their followers, their organizations, and the cultures. Yet every time a leader shows himself to have feet, not just of clay, but of rotting offal, his defenders will make this absurd argument. Leaders are not plumbers. My plumber’s sexual conduct and what kind of person he is have no bearing at all on how well he fixes my stopped up toilet. But leaders, in addition to solving problems, also have to lead. By definition, leaders are regarded as superior, admirable and individuals to emulate, and the conduct engaged in by leaders gains cultural acceptance because of the perceived status of the individuals engaging in the conduct. My plumber’s incivility, or adultery, or dishonesty, won’t change how people regard those things; when a leader engages in them and continues to lead, however, public attitudes do change. The standards for future leaders may also be lowered.
- “Everybody lies about sex.” Stop saying that! 1) Even if it is true, it is still wrong to lie about sex, or anything else. 2) Everybody doesn’t. 3) The statement suggests that it is not just common to lie about sex, but expected, routine, and right. Just stop it.
- “With all the problems facing America, focusing on a Congressman’s sexy tweets is irresponsible.” The problems facing America are in great part due to feckless, dishonest and incompetent leadership. Holding elected officials to higher standards is as important a civic task as we could possible have.
It would have been admirable if the Democrats had insisted that Weiner resign for the right reasons—that he had brought disrepute on the House, the Congress, and the United States, as well demonstrated deficits in his own judgment, honesty, responsibility and accountability that disqualify him for high national office. Their motives were, it seems clear, merely political, seeing Weiner as a liability that they could not afford. As I doubt that their Republican counterparts would reason any differently, this means that our elected leaders, or most of them, would resort to the rationalizations above if they thought they could get away with them. (Indeed, the Democrats used most of them to defend Clinton, and they did work.)
Our own leaders, in other words, don’t understand the connection between ethical character and leadership. Of all the lessons from the Weiner fiasco, that is perhaps the most depressing lesson of all.