The salacious details surrounding the admitted affairs of South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford and Sen. John Ensign of Nevada may have fallen from the front pages of Washington and global newspapers, but they symbolize a decadent culture that cries out for chastisement or repudiation.
Marital fidelity is now rated as more quaint than virtuous. Marital infidelity is as routine as the rising and setting of the sun.
In a healthy culture, spousal devotion would be both honored and practiced on a consistent and regular basis, not just when the cameras are rolling. In the pathological culture of the capital city, members of Congress celebrate situational ethics and self-deification that shields them from customary moral and legal scrutiny.
They are "the untouchables."
The spouses have no pity for these wretches, and why should we? Neither should their constituents, nor their party. They knowingly committed adulterous acts. It says less about their predilections and more about their selfishness. Did they not know or care they would be caught? How can you plan to run for president and the intense scrutiny that follows, only to cheat on your most loyal of teammates?
Mr. Sanford and Mr. Ensign -- or former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, it doesn't matter -- will say they weren't thinking clearly. They want us to accept that minor hiccup and help them move on. Obviously, Hollywood and the world of entertainment promote this lifestyle, and too many people from the nation's capital to the Left Coast are more than happy to embrace it.
What often isn't conveyed through the media lens in this "If it feels good ..." world we live in are the severe and devastating consequences of these choices. While we all struggle mightily to make good moral choices, those we elect to positions of leadership are oftentimes (fairly or unfairly) held to a much higher standard and bar.
The offices they hold dare not be tied to their actions. Redemption (and re-election) is only an apology away. If one of "the untouchables" is too proud to even publicly seek forgiveness, then they have an alternative -- wait it out. Former President Bill Clinton was head charlatan of this practice. Unspoken liberties with a White House intern? Deny. Deny. Deny.
Let time be your friend.
Elected officials are even stealing pages from Hollywood's playbook. We now have members of Congress ducking into rehab facilities to get away from it all. Responsibility for their actions is left to be explained by a 25-year-old staffer, while voters are expected to understand the demands of the office. If only elected officials would understand those same demands before committing their affairs.
The media exacerbate the problem, blurring the lines between right and wrong. Just hours after Mr. Sanford's admission, a Washington Post reporter blogged, "Compared to Sanford, Ensign's crime was so pedestrian: he had an extramarital affair ... ." Such casualness cheapens the moment, and indirectly enables those in elected office to slip quickly under the lens of public scrutiny if their apology is deemed contrite enough by reporters.
Spare us the thinly veiled suggestions that one party is now morally superior to the other. And please don't roll out the tired accusations of hypocrisy. Pundits moonlighting as psychologists have applied that to so many behaviors we've emptied the term of any meaning, not to mention the shame that should accompany it.
These revelations speak singularly to elected officials' own personal judgment. Make no mistake: They are as irreverent of property, human or otherwise, as they are disrespectful of the time-honored oath to do right by one's spouse, for better or worse. That's why marriage is so important to the average American. It is the embodiment of selflessness. And it represents a partnership these elected officials seek when they ask someone to vote for them. How could Mr. Sanford forget that, despite his mistress's hypnotic tan lines?
The Book of Romans taught the early Christians that each individual is divinely blessed with different gifts. As he lists through examples of those gifts, the apostle Paul dwells on leadership in this way: "If your gift is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement ... if it is to lead, do it diligently ... ."
Every action of our elected leaders demands careful consideration. They must be deliberate. They are held to a higher standard. Those in authority knew that when they took the job, and they must never forget the enormity of that commitment. From those to whom much is given, much is expected. Leadership carries moral obligations. Influence and power trigger corresponding responsibilities
That's why the decisions these individuals make in their private lives is subject to public scrutiny. If one's judgment is lacking in his own private affairs, and the callous decisions he makes regarding his own wife, then why would constituents believe that same individual is capable of making thoughtful decisions with their collective wives, moms and daughters?
There can be no equivocation on this matter. Fidelity to one's spouse is tantamount to his pledge, his very commitment to the body politic. Mr. Sanford and Mr. Ensign must acknowledge that their actions yield consequences. Many are demanding that they step down and set the example that there can be substantial consequences for marital infidelity and blatantly lying to your most trusted and loyal staff members. Should the public demand this and expect nothing less?
Machiavelli taught a sharp dichotomy between private virtue and public leadership or talent. But that was in the name of gaining and maintaining power for its own sake. In a civilized culture, private and public virtues merge in recognition that a history will judge a people by its character and values, not by its monuments, power or military conquests.
"The Armstrong Williams Show" is broadcast weeknights on XM Satellite's Power 169 channel from 9 to 10 p.m.