If a political candidate’s personal conduct doesn’t reflect their public character, said character is only as good as the nearest camera lens. That seems the reality, as determining political character becomes more and more a matter of party affiliation than genuine ethics. 

For instance, Republicans roasted Bill Clinton for his womanizing ways. Yet many are excusing Herman Cain for what seems equivalent behavior. Democrats reverse the roles. Although Cain’s guilt remains unconfirmed, Democrats treat him like the Devil incarnate. Clinton, conversely, could philander to his heart’s content while Democrats marveled at his ability to lie. Is it too much to ask for a little consistency?

Herman Cain’s credibility faces a stern test from Ginger White, a supposed 13-year mistress. Cain supporters are left wondering if their candidate is a scoundrel or the victim of an elaborate media smear. Either way no one should be surprised. Scoundrels abound in political circles and newsrooms have a history of intolerance toward Republicans. But media bias doesn’t mean a candidate is immune from personal investigation. That fact appears lost on Cain’s attorney, who said of the purported affair: 

This appears to be an accusation of private, alleged consensual conduct between adults – a subject matter which is not a proper subject of inquiry by the media or the public. No individual, whether a private citizen, a candidate for public office or a public official, should be questioned about his or her private sexual life.

The explanation seems founded in privacy rights and liberty. What happens between candidates and their spouses is their business. But when marriage vows are compromised it raises questions about a candidate’s honesty and integrity. Thus the lawyerly explanation is just spin and illusion, as one of our distinguished Founding Fathers would attest. Thomas Jefferson said, “When a man assumes a public trust, he should consider himself as public property.” For my money, Jefferson’s logic applies to anyone aspiring to assume a public trust as well. There is no private life for anyone who desires to become President. 

Extramarital affairs aren’t automatic disqualifiers from public office, as Jefferson himself would confirm. Furthermore, waiting for a perfect candidate is itself an exercise in imperfection. However, seeking public office means exposing one’s life to public scrutiny. Any situation that speaks to a candidate’s trustworthiness becomes the public’s business. If a candidate genuinely expects privacy on the campaign trail the public should question not only their credibility but also their judgment.

Since lawyers speak for their clients we must assume Cain’s counsel spoke for him. Therein lies a problem for Herman Cain’s teetering candidacy (an announcement is due today). Whether the various allegations against him are true or false have taken a back seat to a greater principle. When a man would assume a public trust he must consider himself public property. Transparency hardly seems an unreasonable requirement for a prospective leader.