I went to a service academy. A congressional nomination was required to gain admission. My congressman was Vito Fosella, representing New York’s 13th congressional district. I went through several interviews, screenings and ultimately got the nomination. There was a ceremony. I was presented an American and a certificate of nomination. My family was proud; a CONGRESSIONAL nomination.
Some years later the prestige seemed to fade as Congressman Fosella fell from grace. He was arrested in Washington DC for driving under the influence; he was charged with a DUI. It soon came out that he had a prolonged affair and a 3-year-old son with his mistress; basically a second family in DC. He lost the support of his base; heavily republican district that included all of Staten Island and a part of Brooklyn. He didn’t run for re-election. I remember thinking that I wasn’t surprised. Not because I knew the congressman, but because I (and their rest of the country) have read about so many others, both before and since. We see the moral failures of our politicians time and time again; with our President's currently in the national spotlight.
Why does anyone even care?
By asking this question I am not in any way implying that it's morally acceptable, or that we somehow shouldn't care. A lot of people are rightfully appalled by this behavior. I'm asking why a president's (or any politician's) personal behavior matters more relative to their support for various policies. It's the latter that actually affects the most amount of people, after all.
The most obvious reason is to bring down the opposition. Politics, they say, is a contact sport. It’s also incredibly tribal. You must remain loyal to the gang, protect the herd and destroy anyone that threatens the pack. It gets ugly. You grab on to anything and everything you can in order to bring down your opponent, because they may be the next one to attack your own people. This explains why we tend to focus on the moral lapses of “the other party” while downplaying our own. Republicans tried to take down Bill Clinton in this way. Democrats are now trying to do it with Trump.
Another reason is that politicians love to virtue signal. “How COULD he?” “How DARE he?” “I would NEVER…” Such statements communicate a person’s values to others take that person out of the moral spotlight; they’re the ones shining it. What’s really being said is “I’m not perfect, but at least I’m not THAT guy”. Al Gore famously did this by putting out soft statements about President Clinton as Gore himself was preparing to run for office. A few years later his own marriage fall apart due to extra marital affairs (link). There are countless of other such examples. But such hyper-focus on private, legal acts of depravity can take away from the discussions that matter.
I never learned anything about Congressman Fosella’s stance on the issues. Neither did I learn anything about the person who replaced him. All I knew was that there was a scandal. Focusing on such distractions isn’t just a tactic to dethrone a politician; it can be way out of accountability. See any time a candidate or a public official, takes a stance on an issue, their words are likely to be used against them. The more that they can make elections, re-elections and policy decisions about personal moral behavior, the less sound bights we have to later hold them accountable for their views and actions. “I’m a better person than the other guy” is more difficult to argue then “I’m for giving amnesty to undocumented immigrants” or, depending on your preference, “life begins at conception”. The less people know about your stance the better. It’s why some state legislatures allow their members to vote “present” instead of yes or no. Barack Obama came under attack for this, even though only 3% of his votes amounted to this cop-out.
That last reason is the most important because it essentially means that debates about a politicians moral values are a smoke screen. While we discuss their morality, they’re still in a position of power or ascending to one. While we were busy giving press to the various negative things Donald Trump said about women, he was busy on the stump in middle America gaining ever more popularity and setting himself up as the future President of forgotten Americans. While we were busy loving President Obama for his genuine fidelity to Michelle and classy demeanor, he quietly expanded the nation’s warrant-less surveillance programs as well as extrajudicial killings of American citizens on foreign soil. In both cases the conversation about policy took a back seat. It doesn’t grab attention. Dancing on Ellen does.
The more I think about it, the less I care about the personal conduct of ANY politician, so long as it’s legal. I’d rather debate the issues. At the end of the day, that's what will effect me, my family and my community.