Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Petraeus’s Fall & Punishment-By-Resignation: Worthy Or Wasteful?

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This week David Petraeus joined the pantheon of powerful men undone by sex scandals. Like Eliot Spitzer, John Edwards, Mark Sanford, Anthony Weiner, John Ensign, and a host of others who have gone before, this most recent dishonor makes an easy target for ethicists. It features the usual characteristics: conflicts of interest, the misuse of power, moral and familial failings, and an innocuous event that unraveled to reveal secrets and duplicity.
The table discussion at my business dinner Monday night revealed the diversity of public opinions on such matters:
  • What concern is it of ours how one conducts his or her personal life? The Europeans think we are absurd and puritanical on these matters.
  • The personal is professional. Such behaviors create the risk for blackmail or other compromises in order to maintain the secret and uphold the image created by the leader.
  • Infidelity is not an isolated event. If one would betray the trust of his family in this manner, doesn’t that suggests other failings of character that are undesirable in our leaders?
  • These scandals reveal poor judgment. Should someone who uses commercial email to communicate with a paramour be the nation’s spy chief?
  • Petraeus’s actions erode trust in all authority figures. He is a role model and should be held accountable for his example.
  • Perhaps the public should not be so indiscriminate in its hero worship. Petraeus is human and to expect him never to err is na├»ve of us and unfair to him.
  • Why aren’t any women represented in this “Hall of Shame”? Are there simply too few in high-level leadership roles to call attention to their failings? Are women less likely to stray in the first place or are they simply more discrete when they do so?
  • Why are so many of these scandal-ridden people lawyers? Are some professions more prone (or immune) to adultery in public office? If so, what characteristics explain these patterns?
  • The preoccupation with infidelity in this case is a red herring. It diverts us from more important issues like electronic data privacy and the war in Afghanistan.
  • And, on the Veterans’ Day holiday, an historical note from a WWII vet: What if General Dwight Eisenhower had been forced to resign on the eve of the invasion of Normandy due to allegations of an affair with his chauffeur, Captain Kay Summersby?
This last point turns the discussion to an important and less examined ethical question: What is the proper response to ethical lapses — in particular, sex scandals? Why is a job resignation the apparent default choice in such circumstances?
A leader’s resignation may quell the publicity, provide privacy for healing, and satisfy societal clamoring for punishment, but is it just, effective, and proportional? Does punishment-by-resignation ultimately deprive the public of the talents and abilities of the banished leader, compounding the cost of the scandal?
Three cases come to mind that offer lenses for these questions:
  • The 1968 death of Mary Jo Kopechne and the 1991 rape allegations against his nephew William Kennedy Smith raised significant questions about Senator Ted Kennedy’s judgment and conduct. Kennedy received a suspended jail sentence for the Kopechne case and public derision for both incidents, but he refused to resign and served in the Senate until his death in 2009. His government service led to significant pieces of legislation spanning health insurance, civil rights, mental health services, AIDS treatment, and education. His long-standing quest for universal healthcare influenced passage of the 2010 Affordable Care Act.
  • Even before he became president, Bill Clinton was surrounded by allegations of sexual impropriety. In 1998, he was impeached for obstruction of justice and other charges involving his relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky. While his second term in office was severely compromised by the scandal and impeachment proceedings, his legacy after the presidency is distinguished by humanitarian relief efforts, establishment of the Clinton Global Initiative and the Clinton Foundation HIV and AIDS Initiative, and diplomatic roles such as special envoy to Haiti following the 2009 earthquake.
  • Franklin Roosevelt was elected to the U.S. presidency four times and served during tumultuous years for the nation and the world at large. His affair with Lucy Mercer, his wife Eleanor’s social secretary, was discovered by his wife and mother, but did not result in divorce, likely for political and family reasons. Mercer and Roosevelt continued to be companions, and she was with him at his death in 1945. Roosevelt’s paralysis also was successfully concealed throughout his presidency. His legacy in legislation and global leadership endures today.
As my dinner conversation suggests, we are far from unanimity on what role, if any, public opinion should play in response to personal failings by our leaders. Clearly these scenarios constitute powerful examples of the justice vs. mercy dilemma. Firing the leader may conform to public standards and notions of justice, but it fails to take into account the consequences of justice. Mercy would suggest that there are countervailing considerations, as the cases of Kennedy, Clinton, and Roosevelt illustrate. Taken to its extreme, however, mercy gives rise to extortion, wherein some people can flout standards due to their importance, or relativism, in which no standards apply because of public unwillingness to sit in judgment of the mighty.
©2012 Institute for Global Ethics