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Saturday, October 18, 2008

Is the private life of John and Cindy McCain of public interest?

It is only rarely that I disagree with Glenn Greenwald, but I have to take issue with his slam in Salon today of the New York Times' profile of Cindy McCain.

The article by Jodi Kantor and David Halbfinger, Glenn says, "dredg[es] up some unpleasant episodes in the distant past of her private life without adding any new information, sprinkling some innuendo about the McCains' long-distance marriage, analyzing her personality and health mostly with pure speculation, and just generally dissecting her private and emotional sphere for no apparent reason beyond idle voyeurism. Some of the facts discussed are, I suppose, arguably relevant (her connection to the Keating Five scandal and how Washington scorned her as a result of McCain's ugly treatment of his first wife), but the vast bulk of the article, while quite invasive, seems indistinguishable from lowly, rank gossip."

The article is not pleasant reading, to be sure, but the issues it raises about Cindy McCain seem very relevant to me. Many go to her honesty and the accuracy of various stories she and her representatives have told, including whether she really visited Rwanda in the midst of the genocide and whether she really had a stroke that left her disabled for several months (or if the "stroke" was really a cover for a short separation from her husband.) The article also raises the long-distance, and possibly distant, marriage of the pair, although it glances over this very lightly and does not come up with any clear answers.

Like it or not, Americans elect both a president and a First Lady (or First Man if we ever do send a woman to the White House.) The First Lady plays an important role, as Hillary Clinton did not cease to remind us during the primaries. And the Times article strikes me as a pretty standard profile of a woman who still could (unlikely as it might seem now) ascend to that particular height.

In trying to make his case, Glenn of course brings up the most important example of a private life gone public: The case of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.

Even as recently as the Bill Clinton sex witch hunt of the 1990s, examinations of a political figure's private life generally required at least some pretense of justification. Disclosure of private lives for its own sake wasn't really the prevailing standard, at least not overtly. The bottomless fixation on the Right -- and, just as much, in establishment journalism -- with the Clintons' marital life, Bill Clinton's specific sex acts and even his penile spots was "justified" by the claim that those facts were relevant to the perjury allegations. Those justifications were tenuous at best -- more accurately: absurdly false excuses for wallowing in their lives -- but at least the rationale had to be proffered.

This is a pretty standard argument, but one that I have never agreed with. The Lewinsky affair went straight to the question of Clinton's character, which was revealed as lacking during this episode. Most people, Democrat or Republican, appreciate that when a male boss has an affair with a secretary, intern, or other employee, ethical questions simply leap out at anyone but the most ethically challenged. Clinton exploited Lewinsky sexually, taking advantage of her crush on him to get blow jobs on a regular basis. Simple as that. If it came out today that John McCain (or George Bush, or Dick Cheney) had done the same thing, Democrats would be very happy to reap the benefits of such a situation. The fact that Clinton's indiscretions benefited the political right (and played a role in Al Gore losing the 2000 election) should have come as no surprise.

People on the left used to say that the personal is political and the political is personal--or perhaps they still do, I am not as up on left culture as I used to be. This still sounds correct to me.

Afterthought: The previous day, Glenn demonstrated eloquently and passionately that John McCain's real personal character, as revealed by the ugly and dishonest attack campaign he is waging, is most definitely relevant.

Obamania: 100,000 turn out to his rally in St. Louis today.

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