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.