MAYBE I NEED to call a doctor. It might be a virus. Or an allergy.
Something must be wrong with me — why else would I have picked up the TV remote during the somber press conference that Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa called to talk (but not much) about the breakup of his 20-year marriage and then just switched off the television?
All the details — who will live where, who did what to whom, will he give his wife back the "Raigosa" part of his surname — suddenly, I just didn't want to know.
When have Americans not entertained ourselves by dishing our politicians? It's free, it's fun and, like everything having to do with opinion instead of knowledge, there are no wrong answers.
So why do I not care how many ex-wives Rudy Giuliani and John McCain and Newt Gingrich have totted up? Why am I not titillated by the here-we-go-again speculating about why Hillary still puts up with Bill? How un-American. What will I do next — forget the words to "The Star-Spangled Banner"?
Whatever I've got — is it contagious? Will the feds have to quarantine me like the TB guy to keep the whole country from catching it, which would imperil the very survival of AM talk radio?
I had to talk to a doctor. Elaine Kamarck isn't that kind of doctor, but I called her anyway. She's a PhD who teaches a class about politicians, character and leadership at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.
So give it to me straight, Doc, I said. What's the matter with me? And is it curable?
Kamarck, bless her, broke it to me gently. I already knew about what she called "understandable human fascination" with the car-wreck aspects of the personal lives of other people, especially famous people.
"When it comes to politicians, it seems there's another dimension" to gossip, she explained, apart from the sheer malicious zest of it. "Does it tell you anything about the person as an elected official, as a guardian of the public trust?"
I get it. Evidently, there's a salutary bimbo-in-the-coal-mine function to our political gossip. But voters have to make some distinctions, like they did about Bill Clinton in the late 1990s. Americans made it clear they were disgusted by his personal conduct but still thought he was a pretty good president.
But Doc, do I really need to know any of this to be a better voter, a better American? Shouldn't I take the trouble to find out about the policy, not just the politician?
Sure, Kamarck says, but who has time to know the particulars of a telecommunications bill or a prescription drug benefit? Voters "delegate a lot of important decisions to politicians, and that's why they want to be able to believe they're fundamentally straight shooters and good people."
Now we get to the hard part. When is the personal just personal? I may not care whether Giuliani had more wives than King Solomon — consecutively, not concurrently — but it was hardly Solomonic of him to let the missus know they're divorcing by announcing it at a news conference.
What's poor manners and what's genuine hypocrisy? Gingrich was stepping out on his wife while charging ahead on the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond fathered a daughter with a black woman. These are the deeds that keep us paying attention, and keep porn publisher Larry Flynt waving around million-dollar checks to entice people to rat out hypocritical pols.
Either we're going to become France, Kamarck says, where the "foibles of elected officials are not cause for public comment," or we're going to remain a country where leaders who natter on about family values had better "walk the talk."
If only we knew when to stop, when to whack a piton into the slippery slope and halt the slide into the pure prurience that squeezes out the important stuff. Imagine the World War II-era White House in 2007: FDR's lady love, Lucy Mercer, would be weeping out a confessional on the "Oprah" sofa, and oh by the way, in other news, we're invading Nazi-occupied Europe.
No wonder I'm sick.
Public life has been hard on marriages ever since the Greek gods. Their worshipers knew every detail of their dalliances, starting with Zeus and Leda, Zeus and Io, Zeus and Europa and the sufferings of Zeus' wronged wife, Hera. In the meantime, far below Mt. Olympus, ordinary mortal Greeks were working out the fundamentals of democracy.
The British sensibly separate the head of state — the queen, who does the bejeweled ceremonial stuff — from the head of government — the prime minister, doing the scut work more or less behind the scenes. In the U.S., we throw it all into one leader, who has to be both the show horse and the work-horse.
In Los Angeles, our last three mayors — Richard Riordan, James Hahn and now Villaraigosa — all have moved to splitsville. Before them, married Mayor Tom Bradley had a "personal friend" who built a lucrative PR business out of her access to him. And she got a stop sign in front of her house when she wanted it. It wasn't the friendship that got this in the papers — it was the public-purse perks of it.
I appreciate the good doctor's efforts, but my appetite for dish is still weak. I may have to go for homeopathic remedies. Anybody got a People magazine?
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