Privacy

Public officials and private lives

How much do we have a right to know about government officials and candidates for government office? What effect does public scrutiny of these people have on government policy with regard to our privacy?

In the campaign leading up to the 1992 Presidential election, the first President Bush ran on a "family values" platform. It was a popular platform for a certain dedicated segment of the Republican party, but proved to be a significant misreading of general public sentiment in the US electorate. Coupled with Bush's previous about-face on his "no new taxes" promise, this may well have been what cost him the election. Little did we know how prophetic that ill-fated campaign platform plank would prove to be, with a media storm of attention to President Clinton's marital infidelity yet to come.

When Bill Clinton faced Congressional inquiries and impeachment proceedings, the public salivated over news of stained dresses and misused cigars; signs of Hillary Clinton's sangfroid cracking under scrutiny; and how much the President lied and dissembled when faced with uncomfortable questions about his private life. His detractors pointed to the fact he lied to Congress as a sign he was unfit for leadership of "the free world", while his supporters maintained that what went on in his private life, outside of his policies and activities in the capacity of President, are irrelevant to whether he's a good President.

The general public, and the news media as the public's proxy, certainly behaves as though it has a right to pry into all the nooks and crannies of government officials' private lives. It may be a result, for some people, of a genuine desire to accurately evaluate the character of people who accept positions of responsibility for the security and prosperity of the nation. For others, it may be a result of partisan bickering and looking for any material that can be used to make an ad hominem argument against a particular candidate for office. Maybe it's all really just a result of a prurient desire to learn the sordid details of others' lives, treating them more as objects of entertainment in the spirit of soap operas than as human beings.

Regardless of why anyone may show such interest in what government officials (and celebrities in general) do outside of their professional activities, and whether it's right or wrong that we pry into their lives, the fact remains that such people should realistically expect that they don't actually get to have private lives. Entering public office seems to destine one -- and one's family and friends -- for a very public life in general. In the run-up to the 2008 election, John McCain's military record and the records of Barack Obama's birth and childhood were subject of very public scrutiny, and if either of them did not expect that treatment, his advisors were not advising him very well.

Bill Clinton signed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act into law during his Presidency, laying the groundwork for innumerable violations of personal privacy in the United States by organizations like the RIAA and BSA over the following decade. George W. Bush signed the USA PATRIOT Act into law and oversaw a widespread, illegal NSA wiretapping operation. Barack Obama voted to provide immunity to telecommunications providers against lawsuits for their participation in that wiretapping program. Judging by the performance of United States Presidents, and United States Congressional Representatives and Senators, it seems like anyone entering public office is incapable of -- or at least entirely uninterested in -- protecting the privacy of United States citizens.

Could there be a connection between the lack of privacy any candidate for public office can expect to enjoy and the lack of respect for privacy public officials show their constituents? Consider the fact that anyone entering the race for public office has to essentially be willing to give up his or her own expectations of privacy from the very beginning. It seems likely that only the people least concerned with their own privacy would be willing to undergo that kind of public scrutiny. Is it any wonder that so many of them aren't concerned with the privacy of others, either?

Considering that privacy is security, the public obsession with the private lives of governmental officials seems like a set of conditions destined to ensure that governmental policy always trends toward ever more violated security for individual citizens. On the other hand, if there is a secret in the history of a Presidential candidate that conceals his or her desire to destroy the country from the inside, it would certainly be best for voters to know about it.

I don't pretend to know for sure whether all this scrutiny of the private lives of candidates for public office, and for people already holding public office, is on balance a good or a bad thing. I do know that I have grave misgivings about what kind of people it may encourage to run for office, however -- and what that may mean for the private lives of the people whose interests these government officials are meant to represent.

About

Chad Perrin is an IT consultant, developer, and freelance professional writer. He holds both Microsoft and CompTIA certifications and is a graduate of two IT industry trade schools.

42 comments
mikifinaz1
mikifinaz1

I don't want to be the victim of some bonehead's bad judgement. If they can't keep their pants up or their dresses down, it is an indication that their reasoning is suspect in other areas. Given the steep downside and the propensity for self destruction getting caught brings; you have to ask "WHAT ARE THEY THINKING!" or better yet, are they this stupid about their jobs as well?

Osiyo53
Osiyo53

Interesting article. But one should note that there is a difference between the expectations of privacy for an elected official as versus that which can be expected by a private individual. In fact, there is no Constitutionally based right to ABSOLUTE personal privacy. It has long been held by both State and Federal Supreme courts that one has only a "reasonable expectation" of privacy. This view has nothing to do with Party politics, nor is it new. It is a long standing interpretation, and has stood up regardless of which Party is in power, and has been tested time and time again, going back at least into the 1800's that I know of. In the case of public officials, the usual interpretation by the courts is that "the public's need to know" outweighs the elected official's reasonable expectation to privacy in many/most cases. There is a distinct difference between an elected public official and the ordinary private person. In that the elected official by virtue of his or her office and the powers inherent to that position, is given a certain amount of TRUST by those who elected them to not abuse or misuse said power, and to act in the interest of those who elected the person. Note, I did not say they're expected to act in EVERYBODY's interest. They're simply expected to act in the interest of the constituency which elected them. And to not violate the Constitution, that's part of the oath they take. Its all fine and well that we debate what is a Constitution violation, or what is or isn't a Right under the Bill of Rights. But in fact the way things really work is that the exact interpretation of what is or is not a violation ... is NOT what we, as individuals, say it is or believe it to be, it is what the Courts decide. That's why we have Judges and Courts. It's the way the system works, and the way it should work IMHO. That's not to say that I always agree with the court decisions. But it is what it is. The alternative is chaos. Where any particular individual (including elected officials) gets to unilaterally decide. This isn't good. If you or I get to decide what is legal or illegal, what is constitutionally allowed or not allowed. Based solely upon our own personal opinion and definition. Then wouldn't a President be also able to do this? Or a Senator or Congress Critter? Would we really want this? Think about it. I think I prefer the way it is, even tho I do not always agree with the courts. As it stands, the courts do hold that those elected officials do NOT have the same "reasonable expectation" of privacy as a private citizen would expect to have. Now this might change at some point. Court opinions do change over time as concerns certain things. Generally they change as the predominant public opinion changes. In fact, in many cases as one reads the write up by Supreme Court judges as to why they ruled this way or that on any particular issue, the frequently cite dominant or most prevalent public opinion as one of the considerations. UNLESS, the issue at hand is clearly and undeniably spelled out in the Constitution or one of the amendments as a "Yes" or a "No" matter. There are darn few things in the Constitution, or in the Amendments, which are absolutes with no interpretation required under any circumstance ... which is why the Founding Fathers decided we needed a Supreme Court in the first place. Now as concerns the private lives and private actions of elected officials, my personal opinion about this is that I don't care to know everything. Which is not to say I don't care at all. Take the last president Bush. The fact that he had a previous drug and alcohol problem (supposedly, I never did look into it all that closely) didn't interest me much after I satisfied myself that he didn't have a CURRENT issue with those things. Clinton's issues? Okay, Clinton was not and is not my favorite person. Reminds me too much of a Snake Oil salesman or Flim-Flam man. But, all in all, he wasn't a horrible president as concerns his official actions and decisions. Several I disagreed with and still do, but he did things I think were good, also. The sex thing? I personally couldn't give a rip as to whom he's having a tryst with or how. His private sex life is of no interest to me. The fact that he tried to lie his way out of it bothered me a lot. Personally I think he should have followed the example of some previous Presidents and simply stated something to the effect of, "It's none of your darn business." Check history, it's hardly the first time a President was caught with his trousers at half mast.

Cynthia R.
Cynthia R.

Who they sleep with is NOBODIES business but the 2 parties involved. Are we as a civil society so bored and such busybodies that we have to put our noses into other peoples lives? We need to clean up our own "houses" before we can point fingers at anyone else.

jdclyde
jdclyde

is the same as hiring an employee. I you know someone has an unstable or unhealthy personal life, it will spill into their professional life. Also is the idea of what your personal principles are will effect all decisions in your life. You will not long go against your personal principles in your public life. As for caring vs not caring, it seems to be more a matter of control and favors for contributors than caring about the average citizen, whom is looked down upon and talked down to.

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

I wasn't sure where the post was going at first, but you answered that powerfully. I wonder how much thought has been given to what you are proposing here by both sides of the privacy issue. Very interesting and logical presentation. Thank you .

bboyd
bboyd

They mask the sordid Laws and policy actions that are the real issue. I make the assertion that these fools oppose the rule of law. Simple plain language and less, not more, is what makes laws effectively enforceable. I would agree that it is unfair to press into the private life of officials. When the do stupid things in public or government space they subject themselves to the same rules as the rest of us. Don't post private views on a website or printed in newspaper and not expect to be challenged on them. The world has enough "reality" TV and doesn't need public officials joining the ranks of ashamed morons. But I'm to late on that mark aren't I?

seanferd
seanferd

I can see from that angle how this might have an effect. I do think that unknown actors also desire such levels of control for themselves or to "trade" to other parties. It probably tends to raise their tolerance for that kind of privacy invasion against the public, I'd say. Aside: You have an "ummunity" in there. I quite like it though. Kind of an unreasonable immunity against recourse.

apotheon
apotheon

What do you think? Does a right to privacy extend to candidates for government office? What about a need for governmental transparency? Where do we draw the line -- and what are the consequences of where we draw it?

Ed-M
Ed-M

See my previous post about Pres. Kennedy. He was possibly, literally sleeping with the enemy at one point. Clinton had the same libidinous proclivities. It is not that hard to imagine a scenario where an indiscriminate president can get him (or her) self into a position (pun intended) that results in blackmail, extortion or compromise that affects their ability to govern or to guard the national interest effectively. That came very close to happening with Kennedy, if it didn't actually happen to some extent. If Clinton was willing to so publicly lie about his affair, he was probably willing to do whatever else was required to cover it up - possibly including something approaching submitting to extortion if his partner and potential cohorts were so inclined. A president with those sorts of weaknesses is an easy, vulnerable, high-value target for exploitation which a clever and resourceful enemy would be remiss to ignore. So, begging to differ, it is very, very much my darn business!

Ed-M
Ed-M

Top levels of White House staff became quite alarmed at President Kennedy's sleeping around as it started involving people and connections that posed a clear threat to national security. They had to take some drastic measures to clean up after him. He was spectacularly careless and cavalier at placing his own, personal gratification ahead of the national interest. Nobody's business?

TonytheTiger
TonytheTiger

[i]I you know someone has an unstable or unhealthy personal life, it will spill into their professional life. [/i] can you legitimately know except that which is publicly available?

JamesRL
JamesRL

Can you assume, for example, that someone who recently had a divorce, is a bad employee, a bad politician, a bad parent? You don't have enough information to make that assumption, and you aren't going to get it from TMZ or the National Enquirer. Take for example John McCain. He had what some people suggest was a nasty divorce after he returned from Vietnam. The tabloids blame him. But there are often two sides to a story, and unless John himself wants to discuss it, it should be off limits. We all have ups and downs in our lives, and we shouldn't be judged on what happens to us, but rather on how we respond and the decisions we make. Some people have amicable divorces, for example. Truth is when hiring we are not allowed to ask about their personal lives and for good reason. As for personal principles, you know its not always that simple. The President, for example, has a duty to consider the best interests of the whole country, not just those who voted for him, and that may require some conflicts with personal principles. James

apotheon
apotheon

Thanks, I think. Are you suggesting I show perceptive insight, or that my ideas are controversial enough to incite riots? Either way, I guess there's an upside.

apotheon
apotheon

I fixed the typo. Thanks for pointing it out. Sorry -- I figured correct spelling was more important in this case than your appreciation of the neologism "ummunity".

minstrelmike
minstrelmike

If I want to know what a person does all the time because it may affect how he performs his job in a public office, then why shouldn't _any_ employer want the same thing out of any employee? Thus the city of Bozeman should _expect_ you to give up your passwords in the same way some reporter wants to steal it from a government official because of some "right to know" THAT ONLY WORKS ONE WAY? We should judge people by their actions on the job, not by their home life or sexual preference or ability to parent well. And we shouldn't judge differently whether you are on a private or on a public job.

Ed-M
Ed-M

A milestone in the terminal descent of free and democratic society will be the emergence of common debate whether moral character in national leaders matters and widespread doubt about the merits of question itself.

TonytheTiger
TonytheTiger

While you're "On Duty", everything you do is subject to my scrutiny. Off duty, Do anything you like except disparage or bring harm to your employer.

JamesRL
JamesRL

I've got some clear notions of where the line is for me. But it is sometimes challenging to explain. I'm not one for disqualifying a candidate based on marital status, sexual orientation race or gender. But how a candidate presents themselves to the world does invite appropriate scrutiny. If you say, "Vote for me, I'm a good family man unlike my opponent" and then it turns out you have affairs, it is fair comment by the media that you are a hypocrite. If you have never attacked an opponent on family values and not trumpeted your own, then it should be left alone. Likewise your business acumen etc. What can and should be scrutinized is your record in public office. Every cent of the taxpayer's dollar you spent. Every vote you made. Every vote you missed. ALL of your expenses. Who you hire. All of it. If you haven't been in public office before, then whatever you raise as qualifications for office should be subject to scrutiny. If you say you have an MBA, better be able to prove it. If you say you did a great job running a company, be able to prove it. I was involved in politics when people did hide things like their sexual orientation, and the press had a "gentlemen's agreement" not to discuss it. I don't think thats possible in the current information age, but I do think that not everything in a politicians life should be open to scrutiny. James

Osiyo53
Osiyo53

"So, begging to differ, it is very, very much my darn business! " Only in a limited way. The particular President I was referring to made his comment, that it was none of their darn business, to the Press. Neither the Press nor the general public have some absolute right to know all the "dirty little details" of the private lives of a President. OTOH, the President is watched, very closely, by those who do have legitimate business in knowing all the dirty little details. (although they may not tell us common folk those details) And at any time Congress can call him on the carpet for an accounting and explanation. You do understand that Congress is the actual, true power in this country, right?

jdclyde
jdclyde

for making their private lives public (people running for office). As for employees, they DO background checks for criminal records and even credit checks. Both are reflections of your personal life that would/could effect your professional life. And yes, some even get into your health records, even though it is illegal, it is still done.

robo_dev
robo_dev

Your past actions are a good predictor of your future actions. McCain lied to his ex-wife, cheated on his ex-wife, then divorced her. The divorce part is no problem, it's the lying and cheating part. My view on that is that people have a core set of values, and they behave in ways that align with those values. And being trustworthy is a leadership trait that is very necessary. There are lots of cases where public officials have been caught doing bad things. It's not those bad things that are typically the problem, it's whether they lied about them or not. Clinton's big mistake was just that, lying. He should have said, yeah this happened, sorry. Not all the 'define sex' nonsense....

TonytheTiger
TonytheTiger

[i]he President, for example, has a duty to consider the best interests of the whole country, not just those who voted for him, and that may require some conflicts with personal principles.[/i] that's actually happened.

jdclyde
jdclyde

is voted in based upon their principles, giving you an indicator of how they will handle situations. It is someone that has no core principles that is a dangerous person because their is nothing to consistently guide them. If someone shows they are more than willing to lie about little things, how can you believe them about big things? Do you really want a leader that is a known and proven lier? Not I.

seanferd
seanferd

Perhaps just inciting people to think about the subject, or inciting them to question assumptions or practices. Riots might be OK, but are quite prone to mission creep.

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

I would never show lack of respect. Besides, I'm too embarrassed to admit my brain-fart mistake.

santeewelding
santeewelding

The more he investigates the devious, the more devious he himself becomes.

seanferd
seanferd

You know, I'm never sure whether to mention an "error" in the thread, or use the Contact option. Which would be better etiquette?

TonytheTiger
TonytheTiger

public record... your internet usage, eating habits, sexual preference, favorite color, etc., are not. [i]And yes, some even get into your health records, even though it is illegal, it is still done.[/i] I know... but if you're taking care to safeguard your own privacy, there are few who would risk their jobs, not to mention criminal prosecution, to divulge this information. But if you're dumb enough to talk to someone about your therapy in the grocery store, don't be surprised if someone overhears and tells someone else...

JamesRL
JamesRL

People's criminal records, and some of the basics of financials (ever gone bankrupt etc.) are already public, so I don't even think of that when I think of privacy. I don't think the health records of a politician or an employee should ever be public. James

apotheon
apotheon

Background and credit checks are prone to error. As far as I'm concerned, their only value is in determining how honest candidates are about their backgrounds and credit scores -- because they aren't actually clear and detailed enough about what happened to cause a criminal background or low credit score. I'd happily throw out any barriers to employment due to murder convictions in which Mississippi State Medical Examiner Steven Hayne's testimony was the deciding factor, for instance. That fraud has been the key forensic witness in more wrongful convictions than anyone else of whom I'm aware that is currently still employed giving forensic testimony in criminal trials.

Ed-M
Ed-M

"My view on that is that people have a core set of values, and they behave in ways that align with those values. And being trustworthy is a leadership trait that is very necessary." Yes, but the problem is that values are subject to personal relativity and are morally neutral. One's personal values for instance, could include philandering, cheating, posturing and lying to achieve certain aims; and another's values can include more noble things. Values, per se, are a meaningless measure of one's qualification for office because values can be good or bad (and yes, many people value some very bad things). It's semantics, I know, but principles come closer to what we're looking for. Even then, there are levels of principles to sort through to get at what we are *really* looking for. Everybody in politics would claim and agree that they share the higher-level principles of helping the poor, supporting the family, boosting the economy, blah, blah, blah; and left or right, they are generally sincere, or think they are. It's the underlying principles in the pursuit of the top level principles where the damage or the progress is made. For instance, by principle the left leans toward a state-ist solution where increasing dependence on government to solve our problems, provide our needs and tell us how/what to think and act is seen as the path to fulfilling the commonly-held top-level principles. As these lower level principles are (or ultimately will be) proven to be inadequate or only temporarily adequate in fulfilling the top-level principles - and inexorably lead to loss of security, prosperity and freedom - it can be said that the left is ultimately unprincipled because of their persistent and futile (but "sincere, compassionate and progressive") pursuit of what does more damage than good. The pursuit of the higher principles, however earnest, in the end reveals a false sincerity and false compassion because of the ultimate fruit borne by the methods. Even when the methods fail, they still persist in them "out of principle." That is the arena of principles (or pseudo-principles) where I assess the worthiness of potential national leaders.

minstrelmike
minstrelmike

I take issue with citizens thinking politicians lie or waffle. When the war in iraw started, 79% or the voters were for it. Four years, 79% are against it. If any politician changed his mind, he was waffling, yet we also have this idea that we want those guys to "represent" us. How can they do so if they aren't allowed to change their minds along with the rest of us. Politicians aren't any piece or part of the major problems of governance.

apotheon
apotheon

The promise could have been kept. They could have reduced spending.

jdclyde
jdclyde

just telling people what they want to hear....

jdclyde
jdclyde

A Republican is held to such standards. It did cost Bush Sr the election. Clinton? If anything, he seemed to become MORE popular among Democrats.

JamesRL
JamesRL

Curl up children while I tell you a tale. Once upon a time there was a big bad conservative Prime Minister (PM) with a big chin, who implemented a new tax called the Goods and Services tax (GST). The GST was like a federal sales tax that applied to not only retail goods but services as well. The Liberals pushed a big red book full of promises when the next election came, and one of the big ones was:"We will abolish the GST". But when the Liberals came to power, they discovered that if they did that without a major reduction in spending, they would have to have a dramamtic increase in income taxes, something no one wanted. A smart economist might have forseen this. The Liberals had a few smart economists, maybe they were all on vacation. One Liberals was outraged at her own parties tactic and when she pressed them to carry out their promise, they resisted fiercely. Things came to a head and she resigned her seat, waited till a by election was called, ran in it and won. At least she had the guts to take it to the people. There are times when circumstances change, or a key piece of information is missing, and a promise can't be kept. There are other times when the promise was made without any attempt to verify whether it could be kept. The latter is like a white lie. James

apotheon
apotheon

I'd say "Read my lips: no new taxes!" was a broken promise -- not a lie. Lies are after the fact. Promises are made in advance. Broken promises and lies are both dishonest, but they're not the same thing.

apotheon
apotheon

It is someone that has no core principles that is a dangerous person because their is nothing to consistently guide them. Indeed. Edmund Burke once said: "Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion." I tend to agree.

jdclyde
jdclyde

[i]"Are you suggesting that the "left" doesn't have core principles?"[/i] I leave that up to each person, one by one, in the way they live their lives to show this one way or the other, and refuse to fall into the category assumption of all Republicans want old people to eat dog food and all Democrats are stupid. how do you classify looking the world in the face and saying defiantly "I did not have sexual relations with that woman"? It showed that he would say or do anything he thought he could get away with, which is what HE said later on after being out of office. He did it because he could. Yeah, great leader. [i](along will come jck to defend to the end the Democrats and trash to the end all Republicans)[/i] "No new taxes", a dumb thing to say, and even dumber to allow the Democrat tax increase to go through, all falling at his feet. Political suicide. People of a low level of honesty would say he lied, but it is only a lie if he said it, intending all along to raise taxes anyways. Such is the intellectual dishonesty running rampant today. One shot over the bow at todays Liberals, they have shown that they are willing to say or do anything to achieve their goals, and the ends do justify the means. Some of the groups openly admit "by any means".

JamesRL
JamesRL

Everyone says they have core principles. No politician says they are going to lie or cheat. GW Bush led a hard party life as a young man, had a drinking issue etc. But he settled down and got married, got "saved". Should we judge him on everything he did as a young man? Or do we judge him on his record as a Texas Governor? If you count sins of omission, everybody lies at some point. The question is really, is lying "in charecter" or "out of charecter", and you can't just use one incident to prove that. Many people accused Bush senior, and many other polticians of lying when they promise "No new taxes" and then raise taxes. But thats not necessarily lying - when you aren't in power you don't have all the information, and maybe you shouldn't promise things knowing you don't know the full extent of the situation(or how things will change in the time from the promise to being sworn in). But breaking a promise because circumstances change or you didn't know some key information is not lying. Are you suggesting that the "left" doesn't have core principles? I assure you they do, even if you and I don't agree with them. James

apotheon
apotheon

Use whichever floats your boat, I guess. I'm comfortable with "transparency".

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