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Leave the dirty laundry out of the voting booth.

The last time I entered a polling place, I didn't feel much civic pride about choosing the men and women who would represent me in national, state, and local government. I considered myself well-informed about most of the candidates' political ideologies and their campaign promises. But as I ran through several of the listed names, somehow I wasn't thinking about the crucial issues that would affect me and my community because I was even better informed about the candidates' sordid private lives. Accusations of sexual exploits and financial indiscretions came to mind instead. Even though many candidates had no hint of impropriety in their past, I had to wonder - maybe they were able to keep their reputation spotless by evading mudslinging challengers and dirt-digging journalists.

I was tired of the juicy stories and the grabbing headlines, the lunchroom jokes and rumors. Judging a person's moral character, based on media reports and gossip, is a heavy load to carry into the voting booth. Disgusted with the whole process, I tried to recall what I had read and heard about each candidate, other than their alleged array of sexual partners and other misdeeds; and in a cathartic moment, I based my decisions solely on their past performance, professional qualifications, and promises for the future. Some of the candidates I chose had questionable backgrounds, but I was confident that my choices shared my political vision of the future and were the best qualified to make it a reality. I would guess that few voters base their decisions on professional standards alone and - as I did - they probably feel they are just choosing the lesser of two evils.

Americans' trust in the government has sunk to its lowest point since Watergate. The reasons are numerous: swollen bureaucracies, wasteful spending, inefficient administrators, out-of-touch decision makers, controversy, and crime at all levels of government. But voters are as responsible as politicians for degrading the election process into a circus show of scandal. Meaningless soundbites and expensive smear campaigns shouldn't win elections, but they do. For democracy to rise out of the mire, Americans must chose their elected officials based on their professional, not private, lives.

Americans should begin by questioning the relevance of what government officials do in private. We may not share the same moral scruples as politicians - we may even find certain private behavior despicable but what bearing do their private lives have on their ability to serve and represent our communities?

There was a time when the private lives of elected officials were private, and, saints or not, they managed to achieve excellence. History is full of great leaders, including many 20th-century U.S. presidents, who played by different rules than everybody else, and their ability to govern was not impeded by their flawed moral judgment. If we expect our government leaders to be models of virtue, what are we going to lose in the process? For example, should Clinton-nominee Soe Baird have been disqualified from being the U.S. Attorney General because she hired an illegal alien as a nanny? Dismissing competent officials over peccadilloes doesn't make sense, especially when our government desperately needs some talented leaders. If they have proven themselves professionally, they deserve our votes.

Certainly, government officials can abuse the power that voters give them, and many do. Such serious offenses are justifiably hard for Americans to swallow without some condemnation. For example, how could Chicagoans not feel indignation after their U.S. Congressman, Mel Reynolds, was accused (and later convicted) of having sex with a teenage girl? Or what Oregonian wouldn't feel betrayed after Senator Bob Packwood was accused of sexually harassing more than a dozen women?

One could argue that voters should judge a candidate's moral character to determine if they will properly execute their duties, but voters should also make a crucial distinction between wrongdoings in their private lives and criminal activities that may hurt others. Using one's political power to procure sex, steal money, and take advantage of people is a flagrant betrayal of voters' trust. However, we should be able to withhold judgment for some failings more than others, such as past substance abuse or a once-rocky marriage. What government officials have done in private, separate from their professional positions, is a matter of personal conscience, not public policy. It is a matter for God to judge, not us.

Jesus asks us to remove the wooden beam from our own eye before taking a splinter out of our neighbor's. This command doesn't seem to apply to those who willingly hold themselves up to public scrutiny - many Americans see that scrutiny as the price for power. But the truth is, we have all made mistakes, whether we chose to live in a fishbowl or not, and no one has the right to pass final judgment on those failings.

Perhaps we should also take care to notice the wooden beam of voyeurism in our eyes. Who are we to judge politicians when we relish finding skeletons in their closets - or even just speculating on what they are hiding in there? (Someone is buying all of those tabloid newspapers and tuning in to all those radio talk shows.) We revel in the soap-opera drama of power and fame and then look down our noses and delight in admissions of guilt. We are wrong to do so. Granted, that is what many politicians encourage us to do by slamming their opponents, but which is worse: slinging mud or casting stones? We can only demand more of our government officials when we have raised our own standards.

Judgment is reserved for God, and so is access to truth. Media sources are not infallible and often have personal agendas. We can rarely be certain of what a politician said or did unless we see or hear it via recordings, and even then, words and actions can be taken out of context. We may believe a personal wrongdoing occurred beyond a reasonable doubt, but we're not jury members in a divine court of morality. While criminal accusations are worrisome, it is unfair to the candidate and to the voting public to convict people of crimes before any jury does. The degree of the crime is also worth considering. For example, the investigations of the Clintons' Whitewater deals may reveal it was innocent financial bungling, but because of the contradictions and unanswered questions, many already believe the Clintons are unsuitable for the White House.

Again, when unsubstantiated questions of character arise, voters can always refer to politicians' track records. Do their actions back up their promises? Have they done a good and honest job? If the answer is yes and we still chose to vote based on rumors and innuendos about their private lives, then we are sacrificing competence for unrealistic expectations of model behavior.

In the end, Americans will do the right thing by voting based on candidates' platforms and professional qualities. Choosing a candidate with these criteria gives voters an opportunity to put aside the pettiness and significantly analyze what direction is best for their communities, prioritize the important issues, and give their full support to someone who shares those values and will work hard to make them come true. Making an informed decision does not necessarily mean knowing all the facts; rather, it means weeding out and considering only the necessary facts. Deciding which candidate is a bigger slimeball does not stimulate constructive ideas among constituents.

To cast a responsible vote - and reclaim the confidence and pride of exercising that right - Catholic voters should leave judgment to God and remember that our own faults have contributed to the perversion of government elections. Catholics must disassociate from the forces that are destroying the democratic process and return to the principles that free elections were based on - namely, spirited public debate of the social, political, and economic issues that are of genuine concern to the country.

As good American voters, it is our civic duty to carefully judge political candidates' professional abilities. As good Catholics, it is our moral obligation to keep out of their private lives.

Jennifer Tomshack, an assistant editor for U.S. CATHOLIC magazine.
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Copyright 1995, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Sounding Board
Author:Tomshack, Jennifer
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Nov 1, 1995
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