Oh, grow up

Both the candidates and the media have something to learn

Issue: "Turkey: A terrible toll," Sept. 4, 1999

Two things our society doesn't need right now, and two that seem to be in very short supply: We don't need candidates for public office without blemishes in their backgrounds, without sins to hide, without embarrassments to erase. We also don't need the popular media of America to preoccupy themselves-and us-again right now with all the early wrongdoings they do find in our candidates. What we do need, and quite desperately at that, are some candidates who can tell us the truth about themselves without seeming to struggle in the process. At the same time, we need candidates who can persuade us convincingly that whatever adolescent aberrations they may once have engaged in, they've now gained the maturity to put such things behind them. Step through this list with me, in slightly different order.

  • We don't need perfect candidates. History is full of successful leaders with flawed backgrounds. David in the Old Testament and Paul in the New Testament both had resumés that should have embarrassed either from pretending to lead God's people. David arranged for a man's death to cover up his own sin; Paul was an accessory to the death of one of his enemies. The list of heroes in Hebrews 11 suggests that stumbles are as much a preparation for leadership as are successes. So is there a place as leaders in today's society for people who have gotten drunk, engaged in adultery, gone through a divorce, sniffed cocaine, told lies, fixed traffic tickets, and committed other assorted sins? There'd better be, or we face a leaderless society. If anyone comes along claiming a clean slate, you can be pretty sure there's one sin he hasn't mastered: It's called hypocrisy.
  • But we do need candidates who have grown up. To say that "none of us is perfect" should never be an excuse to stay where we are. It's one thing to note that Newt Gingrich's first divorce took place nearly two decades ago; but it's a good bit tougher to explain away his current self-confessed affair with a young woman and his cavalier phone call a few days ago to his second wife saying he wants to divorce her now as well. Voters have every right to expect progress along the way. Candidates can properly be expected to demonstrate that their earlier mistakes have not gone unexamined, and that maturity has brought the wisdom not to make the same mistake again-let alone repeating it for the umpteenth time. A candidate's inability to learn from a mistake might well be a good enough reason for a voter to reject him.
  • We do need candidates who tell the truth. No dissembling, no twisting, no coyness, no cleverness, no nuancing, no reservations. Just the straightforward, open, unvarnished truth. It would blow through listeners like a fresh breeze. What if George W. Bush had been able to say with sincerity last week: "Yes, I'm embarrassed to tell you that when I was 24-when I should certainly have known better-I dallied with serious drugs at several parties. No excuses, no explanations. It was wrong. I was blessed with good parents, a wholesome background, all the material things in life I ever needed. So why'd I do it? I don't know, but I did, and it was wrong. If people choose not to trust me for that, I'll be sorry, but I'll understand. What I really hope they'll judge me on, though, is what I've done since then, and my record of telling the truth along the way. God's been good in helping me see the wrong of what I did earlier, and then helping me grow past it. I hope the voters will see that pattern in my life." That's not what Mr. Bush said, of course (and maybe the details are quite different). What he did say sounded way too much like Bill Clinton's excuses of the last few years. So Mr. Bush is weakened as a candidate-and the country is also poorer for having one less candidate whose inclination it is to speak the simple truth in a straightforward way.
  • The media should get on with bigger stories. It's high time for people in the media themselves to grow up. They really don't seem to comprehend the difference between a real story on the one hand, with significance for society at large, and personal details from long ago. If their inability to make such a distinction should ever turn out to have given us Bill Clinton for most of the 1990s, and then to keep someone with significantly smaller sins from office next year, the irony will be huge.

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Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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