We're going to see the most fascinating video during this presidential campaign. It could be a video of a candidate awkwardly dancing at teen prom, shoplifting at a convenience store, or calling someone a racial slur (Macca comes to mind). The point is, in this age of YouTube the flaws of candidates are no longer abstractions. Video changes the facts. It is one thing to know that someone crapped in the woods and quite another to actually see video footage of it. As a fact it is a footnote of little importance - as a video this fact becomes disgusting.
The Republicans who hated the hair dresser's son understood this. It was not enough to accuse Clinton of having sex with an intern; the Star report released details vivid enough to script a video in the apparent hope that this government sanctioned porn might turn the public against him. As it turned out, the public became weary of this and the detailed description that might have initially seemed so damning eventually became irrelevant to most Americans who became frustrated with the Republicans' obsession with Bill's libido and wanted to move on.
In the Clinton scandal we may see a ray of hope. I remember asking my (then) ten year-old daughter if she thought that Clinton was a role model at the height of the Lewinsky scandal. She wrinkled her nose and said, "No." I told her that he might just be a role model in this regard: in spite of some obvious flaws he was trying to move the world in what he thought was a positive direction. In general, the American people seemed to agree. Clinton left office with a 65% approval rating - a point higher than Ronald Reagan and more than double Bush's current approval rating. Ultimately, the American people judged the man's perceived policy and performance rather than his flaws.
Some candidacies have been destroyed by a single revelation. Gary Hart's romantic indiscretion and Wilbur Mills’ affection for the stripper Fanne Foxe are among the more colorful incidents of self destruction.
But in this age of YouTube and blogs, it is hard to imagine any flaws remaining hidden for the duration of a two-year campaign. What seems probable is that we'll have dirt on all the candidates by the time we're supposed to vote. And at that point, it'll be difficult to choose between the guy who helped to finance the razing of a section of rain forest and the guy who cussed out a poor, immigrant bell hop and the gal whose phone sex session was captured on tape. Because we'll have documents on all of this. And as John Edwards’s recent problem with the two bloggers who had the nerve to insult the Catholic Church has proven, even the indiscretions of campaign staff can wound a candidate.
What will happen when everyone is, so to speak, sitting in the sauna sans robe or towel? I think it could be wonderfully liberating. Suddenly forced to confront the fact that even Super Models have flaws they rely on photographers and photo editors to gloss over, voters will have to give up on their odd notion of finding a flawless candidate.
Rumors of Lincoln's bouts of depression and Jefferson's half-black child would have been enough to scuttle their campaigns in this modern era. We wonder why our leaders today don't have the stature of leaders past. Perhaps we've dismissed them on criteria that history has proven to be largely irrelevant to the task of leading a great nation.
If the Internet forces us to confront the fact that we have only flawed candidates from which to choose, perhaps it'll get us to focus more on evaluating policy and purpose. And this could be the best thing to happen to politics since they gave women the right to vote. After all, these aren't saviors we're trying to elect - just politicians.
Post Script: and as if on cue, Giuliani has announced his candidacy and Youtube has provided just such a video. (With commentary about it by one of my favorite Americans here.)