Everywhere last night politicians and (former) political spouses were on my screen telling me how much they think I need to know about their family life. On ABC, Marianne Gingrich wanted to tell me that her husband had asked for an open marriage. On CNN, Newt Gingrich wanted me to know that he was "appalled" that anyone would ask that of him in a presidential debate. On MSNBC though, Jenny Sanford, ex-wife of former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford, who she divorced after his very public affair in 2009, was explaining to Hardball host Chris Matthews why Newt's personal pain was the voters' business. "I think anybody's behavior in their personal life does have to impact what they do in their professional life," she said. "Because I think it comes down to the simple question of character. I think character matters. It matters in your family, it matters in your business, it matters in everything you do each day of your life."
Flipping channels through the evening I kept asking myself the same question: how is this relevant? How much do I need to know about a candidate's spouse and children and personal pain? These are questions that have hovered over this entire presidential campaign, as portraits designed to feel intimate are trotted past in order to distract us from discussions of policy.
Sometimes it is an opponent spreading stories about a candidate's family life. Karen Santorum, in particular has been targeted as a wife and a mother since her husband entered the race, with much made of the fact that after she suffered a miscarriage at 20 weeks, the Santorums named their son Gabriel and brought his body home so his siblings could "meet" him. More recently, a nameless group has been distributing flyers in South Carolina describing how Karen, then in her 20s, was romantically involved with a doctor many years her senior, who performed abortions.
Sometimes, though, it is the candidate's own camp that puts the emphasis on the personal. Santorum (who has seven children) and Romney and Paul (who have five) point to their broods the way college applicants point to their SAT scores -- as proof of qualification. The Romney boys go everywhere en masse, a chiseled testament to their father's... what? Fecundity? Family values? Santorum speaks often of his daughter, Bella, who was born with a life-threatening genetic disorder. Sarah Palin and Joe Biden have worn their sons' service in the military as personal badges of honor.
What do I care, though, that Track and Beau saw action in Iraq? Or that together the Republican candidates can more than field a baseball team? Or who Karen Santorum was dating before Rick? "What do I care" is a question that can mean two things, and I am asking them both. Why SHOULD I care; of what greater importance are these facts? And why DO I care; because, I admit, this parade of miscellany has certainly captured my attention.
The only reason I really SHOULD care, or have a right to care, is if the data point in question tells me how a candidate will legislate should he win. I have no idea how many children my doctor may or may not have, or if my airline pilot has a son in the military, or my child's teacher dated an anarchist after college. All these people have my life or the lives of people I love in their hands. Yet it would not occur to me to use these facts to judge their qualifications. Why do we assume we have the right to them when the job in question is President?
Another reason I SHOULD care is if the bit of personal info will tell me how an individual will govern. The sexual harassment accusations against Herman Cain fall into this category and justify the information as more than just digging for titillating dirt. One could even argue (As Gail Collins of The New York Times does OFTEN) that the brusque efficiency with which Romney arranged to attach his poor dog to the roof of the car during a family road trip to Canada is on point, because it hints at the kind of efficient but unsympathetic White House he might run.
By the above measures I shouldn't even have been watching Nightline last night, since an ex-wife's accusations that her husband asked permission to have an affair and to call it an "open marriage" tell me nothing about that ex-husband's legislative goals nor governing style and are therefore none of my concern, right? Not completely. There's a mark by which personal revelations can be measured when judging their relevance: that of hypocrisy.
If you are going to tell me how to live my life, and raise my family, then I want to know if you are holding yourself to that standard or preaching what you don't actually do. Newt Gingrich, who is calling himself "the true conservative option" in South Carolina and who goes on about the sanctity of marriage while simultaneously admitting to breaking his own vows is an example of the "I am allowed to call you out for your personal life if you are being a hypocrite" exceptions. (It counts double if that vow breaking was done during exactly the same time that Gingrich was leading the charge to impeach Bill Clinton for his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky.) Santorum opposing so-called "partial birth abortions" after deciding with his wife that she would have had one if heir 20-week-pregnancy had not terminated naturally while she was critically ill, is another. (Extra points if you split hairs and say that 'inducing labor' the 20th week of pregnancy is not exactly an abortion.) So is Sarah Palin telling parents that abstinence should be the only birth control method taught in our schools, when apparently it did not work for her daughter.
Jenny Sanford was talking about this disconnect when chatting about character last night. Sure voters can look past personal missteps, she said, but to do so, to "overcome somebody's moral failings or infidelities, you have to also look at where they stand ideologically and how much does their rhetoric match their reality. In my mind, Gingrich falls short on both fronts. So, he wouldn't get my vote."
On the other hand, if you are not telling me how to run my personal life -- not calling yourself a defender of morality and marriage and family, for instance -- then I have no right to pry into how you run yours. And if you are not running for office, but just happen to be married to someone who is, then I really don't need to know your every misstep. What business is it of mine who a candidate's wife dated, or whether she chose to grieve in a way that might not be everyone's choice, but helped her heal?
All those extraneous bits -- the squared off chins of the Romney boys, or the drinking habits of the Bush twins, or the dating lives of the Huntsman daughters -- all that is stuff we WANT to know. We dress it up like political scandal, or, at least, political conversation, but it's really just gossip, with no more bearing on the future of the Republic than talk of whether Brad and Angie will adopt again or whether Maria has forgiven Arnold. We are intrigued by politicians' families because we have families of our own, and since the comparison is familiar it gives us the illusion that we know them. But we are fooling ourselves if we think we are finding many real truths; how many voters supported John Edwards because they were so impressed, way back when, of the mutually respectful relationship he seemed to have with his wife? We have allowed this need to feel like we understand a candidate to replace the need we should have: to understand what they would do, or stand for, in office.
We have made our politicians celebrities, and we have allowed their families to become props. To focus on those families as if they were a window into the candidate is to be distracted. It only cheapens what we actually have the right, and the obligation, to know.