08/07/2007 08:53 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Private Lives of Republicans: What's Off Limits?

So Rudy Giuliani's 17-year-old daughter likes Barack Obama. That fact, which is arguably not a critical affair of state, is getting major media play - here and in other liberal blogs. But is it a legitimate story? And what about the question of whether Rudy's a good Catholic? I pretty much agree with the man himself when he says that's "a personal discussion" that he would "rather leave to the priests."

Then there's Fred Thompson - he of the Hollywood credentials, the lobbyists' investment portfolio, and the young wife. Yes, there's a big age difference - but does it matter?

I know, I know - people think they're legitimate stories because of the hypocrisy factor, since the GOP prides itself as being the party of "family values." And Democratic sympathizers don't mind publicizing the immoral exploits of Republican politicians in the hope that they'll lose some heartland voters. It's understandable, but disturbing.

So, where is the line? What's legitimate and what's out-of-bounds in discussing the private lives of Republicans? Here are some operating principles worth considering:

Leave the children out of it. Caroline Giuliani is 17. She's a kid. It may be legitimate to write about Rudy's behavior as a father, because that's an indicator of his character. But her behavior as a kid is not germane, and she deserves privacy. She may support Barack because she's considered his policies, or because all the other kids are doing it, or for some other reason - but it's not newsworthy.

Does the story reflect how he/she will govern? Rudy may not have been a model husband, but neither was Bill Clinton or JFK. The question is - or should be - whether the personal behavior in question tells us something about how that person will govern.

Hypocritical behavior should be covered. Newt Gingrich went after Bill Clinton over his infidelities, despite having a history of similar behavior. That's hypocrisy. By attacking another politician for behavior not unlike his own, he made himself fair game. Politicians who condemn gay rights while soliciting (or offering) gay sex for money also make themselves fair game. Does that mean it's OK to talk about Sen. Vitter's patronage of prostitutes while he was making self-righteous proclamations about Clinton's private life?

You bet.

"Character matters" - sometimes. The conservatives were right in the Clinton days to say that "character matters." Dick Cheney shot a guy, avoided the authorities overnight, lied about not drinking, and then made him apologize publicly. That's a legitimate story, because it tells us a lot about the Vice President's character (or lack thereof).

But personal sexual behavior isn't the kind of character issue that matters - unless that behavior tells us something about how a politician will govern. Cheney's behavior after the shooting was perfectly consistent with the way he has governed. Consensual relations with other adults don't tell us how they will lead, unless there is something about their conduct that indicates the person is cruel, manipulative, and/or dishonest.

Granted, those traits usually accompany infidelity, unless the sexual wandering has been approved by the spouse. But those arrangements are more common in Washington and other centers of power than many people realize. So is Giuliani's extramarital affair with Judith Nathan a legitimate story? Only in the sense that it displayed both cruelty and dishonesty toward his then-wife.

In other words, what's relevant is his treatment of Donna Hanover (his previous wife), not the affair itself. The particulars of his relationship with Judith, then and now, should be off-limits.

Age differences don't count. It's easy to paint the GOP as a hypocritical party for supporting Fred Thompson, but not because his wife is younger. The fact that he's a Hollywood actor and a lobbyist for anybody that would pay his fees makes it hypocritical, not Jeri's age. We don't know their personal feelings. Maybe they're just in love. And what difference does it make, anyway?

So age-based potshots against Fred and Jeri should be off-limits. Stories like this one, about the influence she may wield in his campaign, are not. Once a spouse begins affecting a campaign, or we're told he or she might attend Cabinet meetings (per Rudy Giuliani), their personality becomes a fair target for scrutiny - but not their past boyfriends or girlfriends, dating habits, or other personal details.

The left should be prepared to err on the side of decency as far as personal privacy is concerned. There are plenty of legitimate reasons to slam Giuliani, including his shameless use of fear-mongering, his autocratic personality, and his track record of poor antiterrorism management. And Fred Thompson's cornpone routine for the Right-to-Life Conference looks cliched - even if you don't know that he was a paid lobbyist for an abortion rights group, but denied the fact until billing records proved it.

But Rudy's daughter, or his marriage? Fred's younger wife?

We might want to think twice before going too far down that road.

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