The mandate for leaders and potential leaders who have engaged in blatantly dishonest, corrupt, undignified or otherwise unethical conduct to remove themselves from office or consideration for office is not that, as hundreds of foolish pundits (like this guy) will try to convince you, hypocrites with a keyboard or a vote falsely pretend that such conduct is unique. There are two justifications for the unethical to resign from office, both undeniable and ancient. I have written enough, for now, about the first—that such conduct demonstrates untrustworthiness, the quality a leader must not have— and want to focus on the second, which is this: if they do not step down and away, such leaders and potential leaders mock the aspirations of democracy, insult its underlying hopes, and degrade, by their persistence, the standards of future leadership.
Once, this was thoroughly understood. Leaders who were exposed as lacking honesty, integrity, responsibility and respect for their own office resigned or withdrew from public life, as self-executed punishment and their last chance at redemption. Democracy, as John Adams wrote, is supposed to be a system that elevates the most accomplished, the most able, the most trusted and the most ethically sound to leadership, for obvious reasons. They are qualified to be leaders because, bluntly, they are better than the rest of us. They are also, because they are better, supposed to be capable of sacrifice and humility, and to recognize that power is a privilege, not a possession to be retained at all costs.
Because leaders have great prominence and, especially in a democracy, popularity, their ability to corrupt the young, their supporters, their party and the culture is dangerously potent, and a competent and trustworthy leader must recognize that. He or she must understand that when they embrace unethical conduct and behavior without shame, punishment, or acknowledgment of its nature, the leader models it for the nation and its population. Causing the public to “forgive” unethical conduct in a leader also forces that society to excuse that conduct, to shrug it off, and eventually, to accept it.
I hesitate to try to trace the origins of the gradual disappearance of this felt obligation of our leaders, but it is relatively recent. Certainly a major culprit is Bill Clinton: it is hard to imagine a previous President defiantly refusing to resign office after revelations like those about his activities with Monica were publicized, high crimes and misdemeanors aside. Barney Frank contributed to the phenomenon too, but both Clinton and Frank only spread the contagion from many earlier rogue mayors and local officials like Adam Clayton Powell, James Michael Curley, Marion Barry and others to the national level. American society as whole has moved, to its detriment, away from personal responsibility, honor and shame, and this is both a cause and a consequence of the new resilience of demonstrably unethical leaders.
The historic causes, at this point, are of only academic interest, The remedy, however, is obvious: renewed lack of tolerance for untrustworthy and unworthy democratic leaders, so that positions of elected leadership themselves are not so soiled and tainted that ethical men and women fear being stigmatized by seeking and achieving them. To state it in simple terms, if a sick, corrupt narcissist like Anthony Weiner is deemed worthy of the mayorship in New York City, no better citizen should want to stand in his stench-filled shoes. Allowing Weiner, or Spitzer, or Barry…or Mark Sanford, or Charles Rangel, or David Vitter or Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell , or San Diego’s sexual predator Mayor Bob Filner to achieve or continue in office after they have shown contempt for their public trust, disrespect for their positions and shamed the system that elevated them, all but guarantees a steady decline in the quality of future leaders. If Anthony Weiner is fit to serve, who isn’t fit to serve?
At a certain point, I believe, such an abuse of democracy ultimately will lead to the death of it. If the public is too lazy and corrupt itself to insist that its elected leaders be the best–most able, most trustworthy, most ethical— representatives of the nation and its ideals, we will eventually come to believe that the nation and its ideals are no better than the despicable, lying, corrupt people we elect. Increasing numbers of Americans have come to believe that already, and the consequences of such cynicism are devastating and culturally fatal.
If there are no heroes, if the “best” are rotten and failures too, why not elevate the villains to power? In a nation with role models like Clinton, Weiner and McDonald, we will grow a bumper crop of villains.
We could hope that the parties would be responsible and refuse to nominate the Weiners, or to tolerate the McDonalds’s once they prove their lack of character, but it would be a futile hope. Only the people can insist on trustworthy leaders who enrich rather than degrade their positions and the system that grants them the privilege of power. It really is up to us to reverse this death spiral of the republic, accelerated by a public that seems not to care about the most basic quality of leadership: virtue.