When Private Character Is Exposed in Public Performance

Suzanne Fields
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Posted: Aug 21, 2015 12:01 AM
When Private Character Is Exposed in Public Performance

The theatrics of politics can work best in summer stock. The candidates know they're not yet playing on Broadway, but they're practicing as if on the road to see what audiences laugh at, applaud or even hiss and boo. There's often not a lot of careful discrimination. The big awards of the summer season can be found at the state fair, where the fattest pig gets the blue ribbon. (Apply an analogy to suit your taste.)

Donald Trump arrives in a helicopter at the Iowa State Fair and invites the kids to take a ride in his whirlybird, an irresistible photo-op, and more fun than taking his policy ideas seriously, because they're not serious. The Donald knows what P.T. Barnum knew, that "clowns are the pegs on which the circus is hung." He's the clown who stands above the other 16 Republican candidates, who for the moment share the big top, reminding us of the dozen men who tumble out of a tiny car, leaving the audience to wonder how they all managed to fit.

The big top comes with three rings, enabling spectators -- voters - to move their eyes from ring to ring, missing nothing as the drums roll, lights flash and the net is set up under the man on the flying trapeze.

The sideshow on the midway, famous for the bearded lady, this summer introduces a lady with not a beard but a computer server full of content to intrigue one and all. Hillary Clinton is described now as being in a "defensive crouch," like a boxer suddenly faced with more than she expected. Will she or won't she turn over the server? Now that that's answered, what will the server reveal to the FBI? Did she endanger national security with exposure of some of the nation's top secrets? She jokes about her Snapchat account, where messages erase themselves, but it's not funny, even for her, when she's perceived as putting herself above the law.

It's August, and the night creatures cry with the melancholy sound of the fading summer, and voters are in varying degrees of vacation mode. There's lots of time for the polls to take the changing pulses of the candidates. How curious will voters be when the air cools, and the candidates dwindle down to a semi-precious few? Has social media so crippled attention spans and addicted us to trivia and titillation that we no longer pose serious questions to seekers of the most important leadership position in the world?

Democracy relies on common sense and critical thinking, of what James Madison wrote of government in Federalist Paper 51: "What is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? ... If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary."

But angels don't, and he understood that "ambition must be made to counteract ambition" -- true on the personal level as on the institutional. We're watching ambitious men and women punch and counterpunch, thrust and dance away. Madison saw that the "defect of ... motives" could be contained if opposite and rival interests were given room to vent themselves in the public arena, with adequate checks and balances in place. That's true of both secretaries of state and presidents. Public duty trumps personal privacy in work-related communications. (You could ask General David Petraeus.)

The burden on the voter is to discern which candidate has the character and trustworthiness to understand that. George Washington worried over the ascendency of political parties and the temptation to put partisan interests first, but he conceded that parties are useful checks upon the administration of government. It's that responsibility that brought Republicans and a growing number of Democrats to question the character and sincerity of Hillary Clinton. The investigation of what happened at Benghazi, where four men were slain, has dogged her campaign, but learning what happened is crucial to deciding whether she's capable of being in charge of the country.

Rep. Trey Gowdy, chairman of the House committee investigating Benghazi, says his committee came upon Clinton's server issue as part of the investigation; he had zero interest in email messages about Clinton's yoga classes or her daughter's bridesmaids. But in examining a mixed-use email account, who decides what's personal and what's public? Bob Woodward of The Washington Post and Watergate fame can't help but compare the 60,000 emails of Hillary Clinton to the secret Nixon tapes that provided insight into the whole person.

James Madison understood that motives are best traced "through the whole system of human affairs, private as well as public." The line between private character and public performance has never been so narrow.