In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book (ghost written by Ted Sorensen), "Profiles in Courage," young John F. Kennedy wrote about politicians who had the courage to do the right thing, rather than pander to the ever-changing whims of their constituents. As we enter the 21st century, principled politicians are in short supply.
The latest example of what I'm talking about is Congressman Gary Condit, the conservative California Democrat who was slow to reveal a secret affair he had with a young Washington intern, Chandra Levy, who has been missing for nearly three months. At the outset, let me repeat what I wrote about the Bill Clinton fiasco more than two years ago: This isn't about sex; it's about lying and possible obstruction of justice. The Clinton mantra was that affairs with interns are OK, even if they occur in the Oval Office, because they relate only to a public official's "private life."
And that's the argument of Congressman Condit and his apologists as he hides behind his high-powered attorney - the same one who defended ex-President Clinton - in an attempt to stonewall and manipulate the investigation of Ms. Levy's disappearance. For example, he gives himself a lie detector test without any police participation and pronounces himself "cleared." Fortunately, no one is buying that particular bill of goods.
What is truly amazing is that the national media are accomplices in selling the idea that moral standards don't matter any more when it comes to evaluating our elected officials. In other words, what a politician does privately is irrelevant as long as he's right on the issues.
That's how many well-known journalists and commentators rationalized their defense of President Clinton against credible charges that he was a serial abuser of women. And now, Dan Rather of CBS and many others have decided to ignore the Condit story on grounds that it's "all about sex," and nothing more.
But hard-hitting journalists like Fox News Channel commentator Bill O'Reilly won't let them get away with it. O'Reilly, writing last week in the Miami Herald, recalled how Sen. Ted Kennedy drove off a bridge in Chappaquiddick, Mass., 32 years ago this month resulting in the death of his traveling companion, a young Washington secretary named Mary Jo Kopechne. "At the time, the big three TV network news broadcasts did cover the story, but not aggressively," O'Reilly wrote. "In the end, Kennedy skated. He was embarrassed and his presidential ambitions were crippled, but a few years later, it was all water under the bridge. Now we have the Gary Condit-Chandra Levy story, which contains similarities to Chappaquiddick."
"The Condit-Levy matter is much more than sex," O'Reilly continued. "The story is about a congressman lying to the police about a very serious matter and bringing immense pain to the family of a missing young woman.... A powerful congressman misleading authorities who are trying to find a missing girl is no small matter."
What bothers me most about this story is that Condit thought first about saving his political career and then about finding Chandra Levy. Anyone with half a conscience would have summoned the political courage to tell the police everything at the outset of the investigation. I'm pleased that the voters of Modesto, Calif., will have an opportunity to pass judgment on Condit's approach to ethics and morality next year.
This isn't a Democrats vs. Republicans debate since both parties are equally guilty. After the Clinton debacle, GOP leaders Newt Gingrich and Bob Livingston suffered their own public downfalls because of marital infidelities. They too came up short in the ethics and morality department, but at least they had the courage to resign.
Here in Nevada, we're witnessing an entirely different example of the lack of political courage as Gov. Kenny Guinn refuses to share his future tax plans with the voters who elected him three years ago. Guinn's reasoning is simple: If he reveals his tax plan now, voters may not re-elect him next year. This political philosophy stands in stark contrast with the Nevada governors I dealt with 30 years ago - Grant Sawyer, Paul Laxalt and Mike O'Callaghan, all of whom took unpopular stands on controversial issues.
Sawyer, for example, pushed civil rights and integrated Nevada casinos at a time when the Silver State was widely regarded as "the Mississippi of the West." Laxalt promoted community colleges when many of us, myself included, thought such an idea was a fanciful pipe dream. And O'Callaghan always shot straight with his fellow Nevadans, and continues to do so today as executive editor of the Las Vegas Sun.
By contrast, Gov. Guinn declines to tell us what he's going to do about the chronic budgetary shortfalls our state is facing, and you can bet he won't be talking about gambling taxes between now and the next election in November 2002.
"I don't know of anybody in my experience in the political arena or the business arena who comes in and tells everybody, 'This is what I'm going to do to raise your taxes,'" the governor told the Associated Press in Las Vegas earlier this month. If he did that, Guinn reasoned, "Then the voters won't vote me in."
So there you have it. Withhold information from the voters in order to save your political skin. It makes sense to me, but I reject the idea that our elected officials have a right to stonewall on issues that affect our pocketbooks, or their integrity. And as for Congressman Condit, a profile in political cowardice, he should summon the courage to resign before Modesto voters throw him out of office next year.
Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.