Should we care if Herman Cain had an affair?

Herman Cain, the business executive who was recently the leading Republican candidate for president, has dropped out of the race after allegations that he carried on a 13-year extramarital affair. Even though Mr. Cain says the accusations are untrue, as he denied previous claims that he had sexually harassed several women more than a decade ago, he was pushed by prominent members of his party, including former supporters, to quit the campaign.

The scenario is becoming all too familiar in this country. A politician is accused of infidelity. He denies the charges and faces pressure to leave. Sometimes he does, sometimes he doesn't, but inevitably, he is weakened. With a few notable exceptions (Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich), he fades away. This phenomenon raises several questions, such as whether powerful men in our society (and so far, they have almost exclusively been men) are somehow inevitably drawn to sin. Or, giving Mr. Cain the benefit of the doubt, has a tabloid media culture prompted a rash of false or exaggerated accusations?


But there is a more basic question than that, and it is the one voiced by Mr. Cain's attorney in an early and unsuccessful attempt to defuse the situation: Should politicians' private lives be anybody's business?

There are a couple of simple answers to that question. One is that Mr. Cain and some others who have been caught up in scandal have presented themselves as family values candidates, and it is important to know whether their deeds match their words. The other is that voters clearly care, and many subscribe to the notion that a politician's character as a leader and as a private individual cannot be separated. For Republicans, it is particularly difficult to ignore such accusations because of the fervor more than a decade ago to impeach President Bill Clinton, who had an affair and lied about it.


Still, there is good reason to wonder whether this kind of moral standard, and the scrutiny that goes along with it, disqualifies or discourages otherwise stellar candidates.

That may not be the case with Mr. Cain. His his made-for-YouTube flub of a question about President Barack Obama's policy in Libya in an interview with the editorial board of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel is probably as responsible for his downfall as are the personal accusations against him. His poll numbers were on the wane well before Ginger White came forward with her claim of an affair.

But it is certainly pertinent in relation to the decision by Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels to forgo a presidential campaign, in large part because of the scrutiny that would inevitably be placed on his family. (Although all indications suggest that Mr. Daniels' family is a happy one today, his wife for a time left him and their children to take up with another man in California. They have since reconciled, and Mr. Daniels has generally deflected questions about the episode with a joke about happy endings.) There's no way to tell whether Mr. Daniels would have gotten anywhere as a candidate, but he certainly is serious, knowledgeable and well qualified.

Furthermore, we know now that several presidents, including some great ones, had private lives that might now threaten their ability to win and hold office. Would we now conclude that the nation would be better off if Thomas Jefferson had been driven out of office in 1802, when press reports first surfaced that he had fathered children out of wedlock with a slave? Should the 1860 presidential campaign have revolved around the issues of secession and slavery, or Mary Todd Lincoln's bouts of depression? Franklin D. Roosevelt is now believed to have had at least one lengthy affair, and perhaps others. Should we have just let Herbert Hoover handle the Depression instead?

That's not to say that private conduct is irrelevant or that we should go back to the days when politicians' indiscretions were ignored or covered up. The question is moot anyway; information today is simply too hard to control. But it does suggest that the public, the media and political leaders could be more honest and thoughtful about the connection between private and public conduct.

There's reason to believe that's possible. Mr. Clinton resurrected his 1992 campaign with a confession of sorts, and he eventually restored his public standing after telling the truth about his affair with Monica Lewinsky. And the great irony of the Herman Cain situation is that the socially conservative voters who once flocked to him have now abandoned an accused adulterer for an admitted one — Mr. Gingrich. The former House speaker paid a great price for his personal failings, but he has now become a front-runner for the Republican nomination largely based on his experience, depth of knowledge and debating ability. We may never quite match the laissez-faire attitude of the French, but we are and must be capable of forgiving private failings if it is in the interest of the public good.