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When Private Lives Become a Public Problem

Whose fault is it when public leaders are ousted over bad personal behavior? Does power corrupt, or were these leaders predisposed to this kind of behavior when we elected them?
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Guest Post by Alicia Mazzara

On a recent episode of Parks and Recreation, Amy Poehler's character is approached by an election committee and asked to run for public office. The committee chairman warns her that any personal information about her will be made public during the course of the campaign. "Is there a scandal out there?" he asks. "Is there anything at all you need to tell us about your life?" Poehler's character, who is currently involved in an illicit office romance, smiles tightly and replies, "Nope!"

Of course, we all know where this plot line is going. Government is no stranger to personal scandal. From Bill Clinton to John Edwards to the latest on Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's love child, public leaders have been making headlines for having affairs. Inevitably, these admissions of infidelity spell an end to their political career and produce much hand wringing over the moral character of people in public office.

But whose fault is it when public leaders are ousted over bad personal behavior? Does power corrupt, or were these leaders predisposed to this kind of behavior when we elected them? In the wake of the Schwarzenegger and Strauss-Kahn sex scandals, GovLoop blogger Kathleen Schafer has been mulling over what private lives say about our public leaders:

Ultimately this behavior reveals men who are disconnected from themselves and fearful of being who they truly are, so they resort to various levels of "bad" behavior to prove to themselves that they really are the powerful attractive man they wish to be. Men (and women) who own their power don't feel the need to engage in such behavior because to do so is the antithesis of true power and self-respect.

The truth of the matter is that public servants are only human. Sometimes they make mistakes. But does a bad personal decision always diminish one's ability to serve the public? GovLoop members were divided over whether personal affairs impacted one's ability to do the job.

Peter Sperry, a budget analyst at the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, noted that leaders can have less than savory personal characteristics and still be effective:

Political and corporate leadership circles are full of both good time charlies and egotistical cads... I've met and worked with many good time charlies I would keep far away from my girlfriend, and most of them were actually fairly decent leaders.

While some have been able to overlook romantic indiscretions, others argued that personal scandals contribute to an overall erosion of the public's trust in government. Carol Davison, a human resources specialist at the Department of Commerce, responded, "If a leader is not respecting those closest to him or her, s/he is disrespecting the people they serve."

So how can we restore the public trust? Charles A. Ray, U.S. Ambassador to Zimbabwe, thinks that voters should consider why we elect officials with a proclivity for bad behavior:

We select/elect people with these tendencies, are surprised when they behave to type, and worse, want to lynch them for it... we need to look inside ourselves and ask what is it that makes us keep doing this.

The bottom line is that even the most talented public servants in the world cannot realize the full breadth of their talents if they are brought down by a personal scandal. So while it's one part personal responsibility on the politician's part, there's also an immense burden on all of us to vote from our collective conscience. As Kathleen writes:

If we want an end to sex scandals, then it is time for us to re-evaluate who it is that we are putting in positions of power. Are we going to value the sizzle factor or are we willing to turn our attention to those that know who they are and are willing to serve out of a desire to use their talents to uplift society, rather than simply enhance their ego?

Not all public servants are elected, but many are. So if you're tired of reading about political scandal in the news, pay closer attention to the personal accounts of misconduct wedged within paragraphs of political banter. Then consider what qualities make a good leader and vote accordingly.

Alicia Mazzara is a Graduate Fellow at GovLoop and is currently pursuing her master in public policy at the George Washington University. In a past life, Alicia worked in consumer protection at the Federal Trade Commission.

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