As a nine-year-old, I was confused during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. For one thing, the day after I heard the news, I remember telling all my friends on the playground that the president had sex with Tara Lipinski — the Olympic figure skater whom most of my female schoolmates adored. But apart from mixing up the two young women, it boggled my mind why anybody was talking about it. Since then, I realized why Clinton’s case needed to be reported — he was fooling around with an office intern. But when an affair is wholly separate from public life, the media really shouldn’t make it public.

The bottom line is that political leaders are human. All too often, Americans make the mistake of expecting their politicians to be more than that. And when the media chooses to urgently report on irrelevant private matters, people tend to lose sight of what’s really important because they find those extraneous facts devious and disturbing. Without a doubt, whenever an individual chooses to be unfaithful, it speaks volumes about that person’s character. But it doesn’t signal ineptitude for governing.

In early 2008, when it was discovered that New York governor Eliot Spitzer was involved with a prostitution ring, Spitzer made the prudent decision to resign. Apart from that controversy, however, it appears that he was a competent governor. Just because he was morally questionable in his personal life doesn’t mean he was a bad leader.

In the past few weeks, we’ve seen another brand of unfaithful politicians — a senator admitting to an affair with a campaigner, a judge harassing his female employees and a governor stealing away for five days to Argentina with his mistress. These cases may not seem as symbolically important or destructive to the American psyche as when Bill shtupped Monica, and one might say it was because he was the president, and these recent three are not.

Yet, each of these instances needed to be made public because they represented a violation of the public’s trust. For one, John Ensign, Republican senator from Nevada, did not have an extramarital affair with just any woman, but in fact one who worked for him.

The case of Texas Federal District Judge Samuel Kent further exemplified professional indifference. As if it weren’t enough that he pushed himself on two uninterested women, he did so in his own federal office. The 33 months in prison to which he was sentenced is a just punishment for not only his deplorable, individual actions, but also for his ethical disregard at the office.

And of course, that brings us to Mark Sanford, the pitiful Republican governor of South Carolina. Apart from taking time off for frivolous, base reasons, Sanford used public money to finance his jaunt to South America. He has since gone on the record saying he plans to reimburse the state for the funds he used, but the damage has already been done.

After realizing that each of these three cases implicated Republicans, a spiteful grin came onto my face. It seemed to me that this sort of thing was necessary for Republicans across the country to start realizing that their politicians are just like any others, despite their proclaimed focuses on “family values.” In fact, they may be even more arrogant, in that they make more of an effort to feign virtue.

In the future, these examples should be a litmus test for reporting on the personal tribulations of political leaders. Next time, the media should ask, “Is it something of public importance?” This time, the answer was yes. They are relevant because they directly concern the people governed — through politicians’ conduct in the workplace or their misuse of public funds. But if the answer is, “No, it really has no bearing on the politics. We just love a good scandal,” then maybe the media should think twice before playing with perception.

As I believed years ago on the playground, the media really shouldn’t get involved in discussing the personal lives of public figures if they don’t need to. (And yes, I realize that I am technically the media, and I am technically discussing just that, but give me a break). It may be juicy fodder for tabloids and talk shows, but it doesn’t end up aiding any cause. The recent stories of Ensign, Kent and Sanford are the sort that media should be reporting — but only because each exemplifies a certain public interest, other than the public’s interest in gossip.

Matthew Green can be reached at greenmat@umich.edu.

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