He was a representative of the people.
Former Rep. Chris Lee, R-N.Y., resigned from his position on Feb. 9, hours after New York news blog Gawker published the contents of a personal e-mail he had sent to a female Craigslist user. The e-mail included a posed, shirtless photograph of Lee, who is married and has one son.
Lee's resignation is the latest in a long string of highly-publicized scandals that center on the personal affairs of politicians. For some, scandal has been a political death knell. Others including former President Bill Clinton have emerged from controversy with a legacy that honors a career of service while acknowledging the nuance between figure and person.
Politicians represent us in several arenas of government and make incredibly consequential decisions that directly affect our lives. The power to make these decisions is conferred by voters who trust their representatives to be responsible in carrying out their duties as public servants.
An individual's trustworthiness is a product of his character, and character is evaluated through the examination of actions. If a politician's actions, professional or personal, suggest an inconsistency with basic behavioral standards like respecting others, honoring commitments and being honest, that trust between the people and their elected official is broken.
But politicians represent us on a personal level, too. As humans trying to balance complicated pressures and needs within the constraints of a constructed society, we adapt our behaviors to best fit the settings we find ourselves in. We strive to impress in the workplace, to find camaraderie amongst peers, to retain dignity when challenged by enemies, to feel selfless when in love and to seek fulfillment in solitude. We lead many lives wearing many hats, and in each capacity we leave a different mark.
When we hear that an elected representative has engaged in conduct that we deem reflective of poor judgment on a personal level, we need to recognize that those actions, however reprehensible, do not negate that person's excellence in a professional capacity. A bad husband can be an excellent father, a caring nurse can be a deceitful employee, an inspirational author can be a heinous criminal and a lusting adulterer can be a tremendous advocate for the people he serves.
Though we cannot absolve our representatives of the responsibility to maintain our trust by displaying personal as well as professional integrity, we need to think carefully before we throw up our hands and call for resignation. To judge any person on one flaw or mistake without giving equal consideration to his strengths and accomplishments is irresponsible, hypocritical and shameful.
Instead of falling victim to simple knee-jerk reactions, we need to make a serious and concerted effort to look inward and assess our own complexities before we force our leaders into simplistic caricatures.