Forgiveness and consequences

Anthony Weiner is in the news again. After being forced to resign his US House of Representatives seat in 2011, he’s back in the news because he is running for Mayor of New York City. However, he’s not just in the news because he is a candidate for the job as mayor of New York. He was forced to resign as a Representative from New York because he was caught posting lewd photos of himself, or parts of himself, on the internet. His behavior, apparently, continued beyond his contrite confessions and promises to be rehabilitated.

Mark Sanford was censured by the South Carolina House of Representatives after the then governor’s absence which was explained as “hiking the Appalachian Trail” turned out to be a trip to South America to visit his longtime mistress. He seems to have regained voters trust since he was just elected to the House of Representatives to represent South Carolina’s First District in a special election.

We all remember the various affairs and legal problems of the Kennedys and Bill Clinton’s infidelity with Monica Lewinsky.

None of these misdeeds are illegal nor are they unique to people elected to public office. This kind of unfaithfulness and bad judgement is common in our society.

The voting public seems split on elected officials’ behavior. Either we believe the sinners should be hung out to dry or that the behavior should be ignored because their private lives are none of our business. The question is, do we have the right to hold elected officials to a higher standard of behavior, not only in their public lives, but in their private lives as well?

Indeed, what a Senator and his wife do in their bedroom is a private matter. A mayor’s conversations with her doctor is protected by privacy rules. The children of our President should be protected from constant public scrutiny. There are definitely some parts of elected leaders’ lives that are private and should be kept that way.

When, however, public officials lie about where they are when absent from their office, such as Mark Sanford did when he “hiked the Appalachian Trail,” or when their behavior crosses the line into actions that are illegal, or are public in nature, their own behavior makes it a public issue. We do have the right to expect above average conduct. They are, after all, given above average power and responsibilities.

A recent editorial in the Grand Forks Herald seems to use the same “it’s personal” reasoning in defending Senator Joe Miller’s decision to remain in his North Dakota Senate seat in spite of being arrested and pleading guilty to charges of driving under the influence, speeding and having open containers in his vehicle. Editor Tom Dennis invokes the doctrine of original sin, which excuses making mistakes because mistakes are part of the human condition and inevitable. Senator Miller, according to Editor Tom Dennis, has been appropriately contrite and that’s sufficient.  His recent column concludes, “In this case and for this offense, that’s likely to be enough.”

Senator Miller, in commenting on his actions immediately after his arrest, dismissed the seriousness his behavior by calling it “a foolish decision.” Foolish is buying a lottery ticket with your last dollar. Driving while drunk is more than foolish. It is a serious offense with possible serious consequences beyond a ticket. What is the difference between Senator Miller’s decision to drive with a blood alcohol of .125 and that of the man in New Hampshire, who, as reported in the Grand Forks Herald last week, drove drunk and collided head on with a St. Paul couple? The honeymooning bride was killed and her husband critically injured.

The difference is a matter of luck.

Obviously, one cannot make prudent decisions about driving, speeding or taking open alcohol containers with you after “about eight beers.” I am not suggesting that Senator Miller generally legislates under the influence.  One has to question, however, the decision to have “about eight beers” on a single occasion knowing that he needed to get home at some point in the evening or early morning. Is he as easily influenced by social pressures and those around him in the Senate? Senator Miller’s beer consumption became a public issue the minute he got behind the wheel and drove onto a public road. At that point his actions became public behavior and are subject to the judgement of the people who elected him.  It was not just a “foolish choice” but one that showed careless disregard not only for his own safety, but for the lives of anyone else who happened to be on the road. Doesn’t this conflict with his strong and sincere concern for life?

Editor Tom Dennis is right, we all make mistakes. Yes, Senator Miller has owned up to his misdeed and should be forgiven. Forgiveness, however, does not remove our responsibility or the consequences of our actions. Senator Miller’s decisions about alcohol are repetitive. This behavior does reflect something about his character. This was his second alcohol related offense since 2007. Only he knows if he has made the same “foolish” decision on other occasions and didn’t get caught. This is not, as Mr. Dennis implies, a youthful mistake. Mr. Miller is thirty years old. He is an adult. He has been elected to a powerful position of great responsibility which demands his living up to the trust of his constituents.

The consequences of sin, even forgiven sin, is the loss of relationship and loss of the trust of others. I am one of Senator Miller’s constituents. He does not seem to be able to make good decisions regarding his own behavior and well being. I no longer trust his ability to make good decisions for me or for the common good.

That is a valid reason to ask for his resignation.

Copyright © 2013 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains