By Ken Sidey.

It’s only a matter of time until another public figure ends up on the character assassin’s hit list. Whether a presidential candidate, a Supreme Court nominee, or a long-dead historical figure, some leader is going to have his private life hauled into public, examined, and found wanting.

Arkansas governor Bill Clinton became the target early in this year’s presidential race. From Super Bowl Sunday through Super Tuesday, the candidate struggled to put questions about his personal life behind him. First came tabloid tales of marital infidelity; then questions about Vietnam-era draft deferments. Titillating rumors of adultery prompted repeated fits of public hand wringing by the news media over how to handle the accusations, which probably produced more ratings points than points of light.

Nevertheless, the Clinton scandal did thrust a legitimate issue into public debate: Is the private life of a public official any of our business? Many think not.

In the midst of the Clinton affair, 70 percent of respondents to a Time magazine poll said information about private behavior—including extramarital affairs—should be kept from voters out of respect for the candidate’s privacy. Over 80 percent said the press pays too much attention to candidates’ personal lives.

But the poll results may have said more about attitudes toward the press than toward the candidates. Let us hope so. Because Americans should be concerned about their leaders’ personal conduct and beliefs, including their personal morality. Unlike countries where the power to rule is a result of one’s bloodline or control of the military, America is a nation built on trust. In our version of democracy, those who govern must win the people’s trust—trust in leaders’ ...

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