Of candidates and strip clubs

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Paul Davis answers questions during a debate with incumbent Republican Gov. Sam Brownback at the Kansas State Fair Saturday, Sept. 6, 2014, in Hutchinson, Kan. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Take a minute to consider the most reckless or embarrassing thing you've ever done. Think about that shameful moment or period in your life you choose not to revisit because it makes you wince. And then ask yourself: Should that moment be the measure of your character? The only thing anyone remembers about you?

These are the questions some Kansans might fairly ask themselves this week, after the Coffeyville Journal (I'm not making that up) revealed to the world that the Democratic candidate for governor Paul Davis had once been caught in a strip club while police were raiding it. That happened back in the late '90s, when Davis was 26, unmarried and not running for anything. (He's now 42, a dad and a state legislator.) Davis wasn't charged with a thing; he was just there, doing things that were legal if not especially ennobling.

For those of us who write about politics for a living, all of this should provoke a different set of complicated questions. Such as: When does boneheaded private behavior become relevant to one's public integrity? And who gets to decide — the media or the voters?

As it happens, I've been wrestling with those questions for several years now, while working on a book about the moment in 1987 when politics and celebrity suddenly collided. That was the year that reporters from the Miami Herald staked out Gary Hart, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president in 1988, and published an exposé about his supposed tryst with Donna Rice, an aspiring actress.

For the first time ever in presidential campaign politics, in a stark reversal from the eras of Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, the candidate's fidelity to his wife became an all-consuming story of the new satellite age. After only five days Hart was forced to withdraw from the race.

(And for those of you old enough to think you remember those events 27 years ago, let me just say that, no, the scandal did not actually begin with Hart challenging reporters to "put a tail" on him. That turns out to be something of an urban legend, like kids whose heads explode from eating Pop Rocks.)

Even the casual observer of American politics can reel off the names of promising politicians whose character — that is inevitably the word that gets invoked — has since been tarnished by scandals involving their private behavior or their marriages or some stupid comment muttered in earshot of a microphone. Sometimes they recover, sometimes they don't. And occasionally, though not often enough, we get into a discussion about whether we're really illuminating anything about a candidate, or whether we’re just trying to create the latest story with a "-gate" stuck on the end of it.

The answers here aren't simple, and those who would defend stories like this one make some compelling points. They will tell you that what matters isn't the strip club or the drugs cops were looking for when they raided it, but rather a candidate's poor judgment and hypocrisy. That is, politicians hold themselves out as moral, honest people who will make good decisions on our behalf, and if they've acted immorally and made reckless choices that jeopardize their marriages or careers, whether it was last week or last century, we ought to know.

A lot of journalists will also make the egalitarian argument that it's not for them to decide which transgressions are relevant to a politician's character and which ones aren't; that's up to the voters. In other words, our job is to compile as exhaustive a dossier as we can on the men and women who would serve you, and your job is to decide whether they're fit for office, by whatever criteria you want to use. If you don't care that the guy was in a strip club 15 years ago, then go ahead and vote for him — no harm done.

I can see the logic in this reasoning, but I have some real qualms about it. There are certainly cases where the hypocrisy is profound and impossible to dismiss. I think of John Edwards, the former presidential candidate, who went around calling for poor fathers to take responsibility for their children born out of wedlock, even as he lied and refused to acknowledge his own "illegitimate" daughter. That seemed pretty relevant to me.

But more often, judgment and hypocrisy are the catchall concepts by which we rationalize any kind of scrutiny, meaningful or not. Every one of us exercises poor judgment. We all (or most of us, anyway) try to be good people and yet fall short of our own standards on occasion. To say that a candidate has been caught doing something he might otherwise condemn is like saying that a candidate has been caught with a heartbeat or a nose. It doesn't necessarily add up to newsworthiness.

And the idea that journalists shouldn't exercise their own good judgment in weighing the value of information is kind of bizarre. Isn't that what we all do every day? Does every possible story make it into the Coffeyville Journal?

The most basic job of editors is to define and prioritize the news. Only when it comes to the sensational, it seems to me, do some of us conveniently decide that it's our civic duty to abdicate.  

If we're going to have a debate about the value of revelations like the ones involving Hart and Davis, then we ought to at least be honest with ourselves — and you — about why we really do it. More often than not, we go after the private transgressions of politicians because experience tells us that you care about it, no matter how much you might protest the fact, and no one wants to forfeit that kind of story to a competitor. In modern political journalism, going back to Watergate, there really is no higher calling than to expose a flawed politician.

What gets lost in all of this, as the Davis case illustrates, is context. Maybe it’s disconcerting that the would-be governor was once found staring up at a stripper in a seedy strip club where cops were looking for drugs. Fair enough.

But for most of American history, this notion of character reflected a much broader and more complex assessment. Has Davis ever taken a bribe? Has he lied to his constituents? I don't know the answers. But the totality of a man's integrity can't be defined by a single private moment. If we're going to care about the strip club, then we have to care equally about the rest of it, too, and so do you.

Because the cost of personal, predatory journalism, as Frank Bruni pointed out in last Sunday's New York Times, isn't necessarily what happens to the Paul Davises of the world; it's the candidates we never get. What kind of successful innovator or courageous thinker wants to enter the arena if she knows that the few things she regrets most will be the only things anyone — including her own family — ever hears about her? Why would anyone in Kansas look at Davis right now and say, "All right, then, sign me up!"?

As far as we know, anyway, Paul Davis had one ignominious moment. We in the media keep reliving ours, over and over again.