10/13/10: Campaign rubbernecking

This op-ed appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on the date shown.

THREE WEEKS from today, it will all be over. Portsmouth will have a new mayor, Norfolk will have a new council member, Virginia Beach and Suffolk may have some new council and school board members. And, of course, there will be some new faces in the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate.

In many ways, regardless of the outcome, every candidate is a winner. Every day of the election season, these people put themselves out there in pursuit of the privilege of representing us. Long days and nights spent facing supporters and opponents come at tremendous personal sacrifice, as any candidate will attest. Making it to the finish line — Election Day — is a testament to their stamina.

As if spending every waking moment trying to persuade people to vote for you weren’t enough, a candidate’s entire life becomes an open book. Every aspect is scrutinized and criticized, sometimes fairly,  other times not.

Political operatives will tell you that this scrutiny is necessary because the public has the right to know. There is no doubt that knowing a candidate’s background helps us decide for whom to cast our vote. In addition to their basic qualifications and stances on the issues, we look at other items to try to determine fitness for office. For example, how candidates handle their personal finances is generally considered important.

Over time, though, the amount of information we learn about candidates has increased. Health, for example, has become an issue. With the complicity of the media, few knew of Franklin Roosevelt’s paralysis or John Kennedy’s Addison’s disease. Neither of these would be kept from the public today.

At what point, though, does the public’s right to know impinge on the right of privacy of the candidate? I’ve been thinking about that a lot after photos of 1st Congressional District candidate Krystal Ball appeared on a Virginia blog and later spread across the nation. Yes, the photos were risqué, but what did they say about her fitness to serve?

Or what about the revelation that Rich Iott, a congressional candidate in Ohio, was a Nazi re-enactor? Photos of him in his SS uniform are all over the Internet. Only on his website did I find photos of him in the uniforms of his other military re-enactment activities — as a Civil War Union infantryman, a World War I doughboy and World War II American infantryman.

While directed at the proliferation of newspapers and photography, Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis wrote in 1890 the seminal paper on the right of privacy. “The press,” the men wrote, “is overstepping in every direction the obvious bounds of propriety and of decency. Gossip is no longer the resource of the idle and of the vicious, but has become a trade, which is pursued with industry as well as effrontery.”

Substitute “politics” for “the press” and you’ve got what passes for political discourse these days.

Warren and Brandeis even pointed the finger at who was responsible for this — us. “In this, as in other branches of commerce, the supply creates the demand. Each crop of unseemly gossip, thus harvested, becomes the seed of more, and, in direct proportion to its circulation, results in the lowering of social standards and of morality.”

We ask for more gossip — photos, rumors, half-truths and the like — and the purveyors deliver.

It is no wonder, then, that few are willing to subject themselves to the rigors of a campaign. Few among us have blemishless pasts. (Given our suspicious natures, I’m not sure we’d elect them if they did.) To err, as they say, is human.

Some things should be out of bounds. Rather than rubbernecking at the latest car wreck in a campaign, we voters should reject those things and focus on the issues.