We haven’t had a really juicy sex scandal in Washington for a while. You know the kind: Camera crews chase someone powerful (and maybe his or her paramour) like paparazzi, and the elite express disdain for all the attention the riffraff pay to each respective sleazy disclosure, all the while they’re sneaking a peek at every tidbit. Let’s just admit it; they’re kind of fun … unless, of course, you’re the ones who have been exposed (pardon the expression).
This stuff is not just titillating, though. It also serves a useful purpose. I like to say that it all proves that our leaders are just like the rest of us — they take their pants off just like you and me. It’s important that we keep that in mind, particularly during an election cycle (when is it not an election cycle?) when a bunch of ambitious candidates have their PR machines running full speed churning out propaganda aimed at convincing us that their client really is a cut above mere mortals and has a unique superhuman ability to solve all the problems that afflict our country, the ones that have defied solution for many administrations. In fact, many of them have gotten worse.
Maybe that’s why we get enjoyment from watching some of these pumped-up avatars occasionally get cut down to size. It might explain our fascination over the fall of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, or the latest Sarah Palin escapades.
Remember, Palin was a governor herself for a while and then became a vice-presidential nominee. She’s back in the news, right where she usually loves to be, although perhaps not this time. Apparently, she and the fam were part of a drunken brawl back home in Alaska. Fistfights, profanity, the whole nine yards. But she’s hardly alone when it comes to oafish behavior. She’s not even the only one who was on the ticket to be a heartbeat away from the presidency who proved to be an embarrassing dud. “Tawdry” is a gentle word to describe the story of John Edwards, who fathered a child while having an affair with his campaign videographer, while his wife was dying of breast cancer. He was a serious candidate to be president, symbolizing a fresh approach to politics. Now he symbolizes little more than stale sleaze.
Of course, John F. Kennedy certainly had a high time while he occupied the highest level, and President Bill Clinton and his intern also had a good old time at the White House.
The important point is that when we go bonkers for one new face or another, we need to get a grip. When it comes to Barack Obama, for instance, there’s not a hint of anything risque, but a common word you hear today from those who had been ecstatic when he was elected is “disappointment.” The polls consistently show that his disapproval ratings are over 50 percent. A big criticism is that he didn’t deliver on his “change you can believe in” promise.
He’s been worn down by reality. And so have we. The lesson is that we need to be very skeptical about putting someone on a pedestal. The legends of heroes, with rare exceptions, are hyperbole at best but more often fiction, or even outright lies.
That’s not only true of our politicians. Our athletes may have superhuman physical skills, but as we are reminded almost daily, many of them can be subhuman. They believe they are not bound by the rules of decency or the law. It’s not hard to understand why.
They make a lot of people a lot of money, so they’re coddled until their conduct gets so egregious that even they have to face the consequences. Suddenly, they look around and all their good friends have bailed on them.
That’s their problem. But when it’s our politicians who fool us, it’s ours. We need to choose wisely. Our leaders are mere humans who will make mistakes. Our mistake is expecting anything more.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.