The past few weeks of reality-tv journalism coming out of Canada involving Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has certainly been captivating. Late night comics, especially Jon Stewart, are caught up in one of those rare situations wherein the jokes seemingly write themselves. One of those punchlines was the news that Ford’s approval rating ticked upwards by five points after he announced that he had indeed smoked crack cocaine possibly during a “drunken stupor.”
According to a report from The Toronto Star, the president of the polling agency said the uptick “could be a sampling, margin-of-error thing, or it could be just some sympathy.” Although, I would speculate that it might something more than that.
Consider the politician who had a similar sort of moral meltdown, former Congressman and New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner. Like Ford, there was hard evidence of Weiner’s misdeeds and in spite of it he persisted in the public eye. Also like Ford, Weiner was aggressive in the face these accusations, and denied them repeatedly before admitting them. Yet where Weiner and Ford diverge is in the tone of their admissions and apologies.
Ford has been almost comedically blunt in the way in which he addresses both the press and his political opponents. Whereas Weiner’s admissions and policies were stiff, practiced statements full of political double-talk and with so much spin he could have taken orbit. The fact that Ford faced up to his mistake as unapologetically did resonates with people. As Lady Gaga put it after hosting Saturday Night Live, “at least he’s honest.” President George W. Bush was similarly unapologetic during his stint in office—though his alleged cocaine-abusing days were well behind him—and while his approval numbers fell, his supporters remained steadfast and loyal.
However, also worth considering is if politicians like Ford and Weiner are addicts hungry for political power or dedicated public servants who do their jobs well in spite of their tendencies for excess? Most of the reports about Mayor Ford’s tenure as a fiscal conservative are favorable. In a Washington Post article a former Ford opponent says, “What’s really maddening for me as a taxpayer is that he really is good at saving people money.”
Perhaps if the electorate (and the news media) were less judgmental about these kind of moral errors in judgment, the quality of potential leaders we’d have to choose from would increase. Friday, we remember the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, a man who would have never been able to stand up to the modern-day media scrutiny. The press corps in the 1960s knew full well that President Kennedy had a weakness for women; they simply chose not to report it. It wasn’t seen as anyone’s business.
I am not suggesting that we turn a completely blind eye to the moral character of our elected officials. In fact, I am suggesting the opposite. Affairs, struggles with addiction, or even illness are private matters and there is no clear line about when and if they matter with respect to an elected official’s ability to do his or her job. However, by resisting a knee-jerk mentality these scandals need not be political death-sentences. Otherwise, we risk only attracting sadists or automatons to the hyper-scrutiny we demand of those who choose to run for elected office.