By Graham Earnshaw
NEW YORK, Oct 23, Reuter – History is full of great leaders with dubious moral standards, but if you want to be president of the United States nothing less than squeaky-clean will do.
Personal morality has played a big role in the current presidential election campaign and is becoming an increasingly important litmus test for much of the American public as they try to choose between the candidates.
Two Democratic contenders were forced out of the race early over moral issues.
Former Senator Gary Hart bowed out because of questions about his relationship with Miami model Donna Rice and Senator Joe Biden quit when it was reported that he had lifted parts of a speech from British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock.
Republican vice-presidential candidate Senator Dan Quayle had his past carefully dissected under the media’s moral microscope after he was selected.
And last Thursday, an aide to Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis resigned after declaring that Republican candidate George Bush should comment publicly on unsubstantiated reports that he had had an affair.
“I think (personal morality) is becoming a great deal more important and there’s a good reason for that,” said Ted Smith, associate professor of mass communications at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“I believe that in the modern world, issues change so rapidly that it is very different to select someone based on the issues of the moment. That leaves you two other options — one is ideology, the other is morality or character.”
Robert Shapiro, associate professor of political science at Columbia University in New York, said he was struck by voters’ stress on personal morality rather than political morality.
Bush, he pointed out, had hardly been affected by the Reagan administration’s moral record in terms of the Iran-Contra affair and the number of officials dismissed for shady practices.
“It is personal morality that is more of concern than general political morality,” Shapiro said. “The political morality having to do with deception and manipulation in government seems to bother people a lot less, for some reason.”
Dr Bill Lydon, political science department administrator at Ohio State University, said: “It appears at the moment that anything to do with sex comes up in this country and it immediately converts into a morality issue, and it can be devastating.”
“The press feasts on it and the public instantly leaps to conclusions about people based on sexual morality.”
President John Kennedy was reported to be a womaniser during his years in the White House but the reports surfaced only several years after his assassination.
The Republican Party’s presidential candidate in 1940, Wendell Wilkie, was open about having a mistress. However, the press stayed well clear of the whole issue.
“There was a very well understood line between personal and public life back then,” said Smith. “I think it’s tragic that we have transgressed that line. I think sexual proclivities are close to being irrelevant in terms of character judgment.”
He added: “If you look at the long train of history there have been a number of great leaders who have fairly randy sex lives. So I’m not convinced that that is a good predictor of quality of leadership.”
Both Bush and Dukakis have assured the voters over and again that they are for traditional “family values” and their wives and children play an important part in the media package assembled to sell them to the public.
So important is the family that a politician without a wife and children would have virtually no chance of becoming a candidate in the race for the White House, Virginia University’s Smith said.
“The fact that, for example, we have a divorcee for president now (Ronald Reagan) is an improvement along those lines, but I think it’s going to be a long time before the public would accept someone…who was single,” he said.
“The sad thing is we are going to dissuade a lot of good people from running for office because they don’t meet that kind of moral perfection that is being demanded.
“We should select people based on ideology and character, but we have to be reasonable about this.” REUTER GE WS NNNN