Politicians Need Privacy, Too

Is the public better off knowing all the tawdry details in tell-alls like Jenny Sanford’s memoir and Game Change? Meghan McCain on political oversharing.

AP Photo; Landov

Over the years I’ve been accused of oversharing. Some people like this aspect of my personality and of course some hate it. It’s an odd Catch-22 when it comes to blogging and writing a column, because the very nature of doing these things necessitates some level of openness with your readers.

When you layer in politics (and being a part of a political family) it raises the stakes even more. Because as with all public figures, there is often an expectation about values and character that goes along with your image—particularly if you are the type of politician who has built that image based on those values. So when our leaders disappoint us—and foolish or despicable behavior is not limited to either party—the tearing down of a politician comes faster and more furiously than building up ever could. Almost immediately, all of the awful stories about a politician’s “true character” are reported in the media, and people start debating whether once reviled publications like The National Enquirer should be eligible for the Pulitzer Prize. But do we really need to know everything?

I thought Mark Sanford was a scumbag before she wrote this book and I continue to think so afterward.

Before the 1970s, the American public almost never heard about politicians behaving badly. Were we really so much worse off not knowing about the bedroom activities of FDR, Eisenhower, and JFK? And it’s not just affairs—in the 1930s and ‘40s, the media agreed not to photograph FDR in his wheelchair. It wasn’t until Jimmy Carter’s “lust in his heart” interview with Playboy in 1976 that the public felt entitled to know such intimate details. And after Gary Hart taunted the press to follow him around in 1987, we believed all political monkey business was our business.

During the past few weeks, several tell-all books about politicians have been published. And even I, an admitted oversharer, think we’ve gone too far. Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin chronicles the 2008 election, including intimate reporting on the Clintons, The Edwardses, Barack Obama, Sarah Palin, and my parents. I have only read the excerpt in New York magazine, a cover story about John and Elizabeth Edwards, but some of the revelations in that article were so deeply personal and unnecessary that they made me cringe. The stresses that a presidential campaign places on families are already enormous, but I cannot even imagine how impossible it would be to run for that office it while battling cancer, dealing with my husband’s affair, and possible love child. So, really, who can really blame Elizabeth Edwards for having a meltdown or three along the way? It would say more about you, I think, if you didn’t scream now and then.

The problem, of course, is that for politicians and their families, there are always eyes around. There is always a reporter or some security present so these very private struggles are automatically liable to become very public.

And it’s not just reporters that politicians have to be wary of. In the case of John and Elizabeth Edwards, they have former staffer Andrew Young and his wife going on television spilling the intimate details of their 10-year friendship as well as what they know about John’s affair with Rielle Hunter. Oh, and they also claim they have a sex tape of Edwards and Hunter locked away. It’s as though the Youngs forget they were also facilitating the lies to the American public as this man ran for president.

More interesting to many people is the story of Jenny Sanford, wife of South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford. In Staying True, her new memoir about the dissolution of her marriage, Mrs. Sanford goes into excruciatingly detail about how her marriage was doomed almost from the start. I think what surprised me most was that the governor removed the line about remaining faithful from their wedding vows. Mark Sanford ends up looking absolutely nothing like the Southern gentleman and family-values advocate that he presented himself as while he was running for governor.

There is, of course, some level on which I understand Jenny wanting to tell her side of the story. Finally we had a woman who wouldn’t stand by her husband during his very public scandal and that alone makes her a feminist icon of sorts. But is this book catharsis or just payback? Or is she setting herself up for her own political career? I thought Mark Sanford was a scumbag before she wrote this book and I continue to think so afterward, but did we really need to know everything that’s in this book?

We don’t need political tell-alls and memoirs to know that our politicians are, in the end, only human. Trust me, despite the media’s saintly portrayal of him, President Obama is just a man. But if we don’t start drawing a line somewhere about what we have the right to know about our leaders, there will come a day when no one is good enough.

Meghan McCain is a columnist for The Daily Beast. Originally from Phoenix, she graduated from Columbia University in 2007. She is a New York Times bestselling children's author, previously wrote for Newsweek magazine, and created the Web site mccainblogette.com.