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How Pure Must Our Candidates Be?
The distasteful questions we ask our presidential hopefuls serve a real purpose
May/June 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 4
Now is a time when many respected figures live openly in “sin.”
Those who did not bring up religion in an election wanted the reigning religious exclusions to continue. So religion ruled the situation far more rigidly when it was not discussed than it does now, when the fact that Bruce Babbitt is a Catholic is somewhat relevant, but not the decisive factor, as it was with Al Smith, nor a disproportionately relevant factor, as with John Kennedy. The issue had to get more relevant, to be brought up and openly addressed, before it could become less relevant. Only in that way could society make up its mind publicly on the matter and signal a new set of presidential rules: more inclusive for Catholics (though not yet for Jews).
Bringing such matters up, even before the children, is the way we discover jointly that we have changed our communal attitude. We discover the change while making the change, in public interchanges with our fellow citizens. We could not know the shift had occurred until it was thrashed out in public forums of social acceptance —forums like the presidential race, our leading symbol of social choice and cohesion.
Does smoking pot in the sixties have any relevance to a political career in the eighties? That, too, is a question we could not know the answer to until it was brought up. For Bruce Babbitt and Senator Gore, the answer seems to be no. But this is a question on which society itself has been somewhat hypocritical. For one thing, there has been a lag in time, or a lack of fit, between behavior and the law—the sort of thing we experienced under Prohibition. Law enforcement figures still preach against marijuana; this First Lady takes her campaign against it into the schools; Justice Department prosecuters have to declare whether they themselves have broken this particular law, detailing times and circumstances. It was an institutional hypocrisy that caught Ginsburg in the anomalous position of being higher in the Justice Department than some who had been disqualified because of what he did or that put him on the way toward being a high court justice who might have to pronounce on a crime (if that is what it is) that he himself had committed. And if it is not a crime, then why have it on the books? As 1 say, the “youthful indiscretion” argument seems to work for a Gore or a Babbitt, who did not have the institutional procedure of the Justice Department and the specific legal mandate that Judge Ginsburg sought. The Ginsburg case posed in its most pointed way this question: How does one go from challenging authority figures-- as Ginsburg did, not only by smoking marijuana and growing a beard and long hair but by demonstrating against a war being conducted by the political authorities of the United States—to becoming an authority figure oneself? Even with all these factors weighing against him, Ginsburg would not necessarily have been denied office if other matters—possible conflict of interest and misrepresentations of his experience—had not also come into play.
The question of who deserves authority is complicated and must be decided case by case, person by person, but smoking marijuana is relevant precisely because the sixties were a generation that challenged authority so effectively and had such readily identifiable symbols for doing that. We are still caught in the turmoil caused by such questioning, and the sixties generation will have to sort out its attitudes in the world it helped change, with all the doubts that follow on successful challenges to authority. How do you reestablish authority? On what grounds of agreed values? These are the large questions that underlie such apparently trivial points as whether one broke a law that is still on the books, whether one supports that law now or would favor abolishing it.
There is probably no better way to thrash out all this than in a political race. From the time of George Washington, the choice of President has been a symbolic endorsement of certain values. He, more than any other President, was chosen for character, apart from the issues. Admittedly he was chosen by an electoral college that still had real independence. Nonetheless, that college voted for a man who would be a convincing, persuasive, unifying leader of the people at large —which he proved to be. He was chosen for his war record and, even more, for his resignation of military authority, for his peacetime self-restraint during the troubled period of transition from the Articles of Confederation to the present Constitution. Washington was an embodiment of what America was striving to be as a nation when we did not yet have a cluster of symbols and institutions that made the national identity and authority.