WASHINGTON -- One of the least attractive things about Homo sapiens is their habit of creating entertainment from the suffering of others. Hangings once were public spectacles, part carnival, part moral lesson. The modern equivalent is the political sex scandal.
The latest, though by no means the worst, concerned former Rep. Mark Souder of Indiana, who admitted an affair with a staffer and resigned from office. Souder, a social conservative who supported abstinence education, was jeered for hypocrisy. There was a moment of national mirth. Then Souder packed up his office and left town. The carnival moved on.
My problem is, I know Mark Souder. Years ago, he was my first boss on Capitol Hill, when we both worked for Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana. I found Mark to be deeply religious, highly intelligent and slightly neurotic. The answer to any question was likely to be detailed, exhaustive and lengthy. When we first met, Mark was charged with giving me an overview of Indiana politics. He paused a moment, then began, "Let me start with the glaciers ... "
And Mark was decent to me. Not long after I started working there, my father died suddenly. Mark drove from Washington to Atlanta to attend the funeral. I won't forget.
Mark later became a thoughtful congressman, carving out a serious role on drug policy. He did his job with care and stubborn integrity. He was not a bright-burning political meteor, but he was the kind of man worth having in the House.
So what does sexual conduct have to do with the qualifications for public service? It is the question raised by the cases of politicians such as John Edwards, Mark Sanford, Eliot Spitzer and Bill Clinton. In practice, we make certain distinctions. There is a difference between breaking a vow out of weakness and smashing it out of malice. Sexual behavior can reveal our shared foolishness. Or it can reveal coldness, compulsion, cruelty, exploitation, arrogance and recklessness. Who can deny that these traits of character are potentially dangerous in a political leader?
But while sexual conduct is not irrelevant, it is also not everything. I have known politicians who are cold, arrogant, reckless -- and faithful to their spouses. And I have known politicians who have been unfaithful and served the public well.