What, if anything, are we to make of the bombshell news that Canada’s prime minister and his wife are separating? Given the private tragedy of divorce, especially when children are involved, is it none of our business? Or must we give attention to the private lives of public figures? Especially political ones?
My immediate inclination is that decency requires us to avert our gaze. It’s bad enough already without headlines. And in this case I know nothing beyond what has been in the headlines, and the news stories calling for respect for the Trudeaus’ privacy while discussing in detail how and when they met, their syrupy public anniversary exchanges and so on.
Unfortunately their case illustrates that we cannot separate out the private character of eminent people from their public conduct, especially if they are in “public life” in the sense of politics and government. And tellingly, the separation was treated as newsworthy, even internationally. I first heard of it from NBC not a Canadian source.
Why do politicians’ private lives matter? Well, during the vehement debate over U.S. entry into the League of Nations after World War I, President Woodrow Wilson was largely incapacitated by a stroke, which probably increased his already problematic tendency toward impatience and intolerance when he was able to focus on the issue.
Since American failure to ratify the Treaty of Versailles is conventionally thought to have contributed to the coming of World War II, and since at critical moments Wilson rallied Democrats to reject a reasonable compromise over ratification with “reservations” to protect U.S. sovereignty, his health was a matter of urgent public interest. Like FDR being secretly too sick to function at the crucial Yalta conference shaping the post-World War II settlement. Or responsibility for America’s nuclear deterrent resting with a man whose handlers are struggling to conceal his senility.
Even if a famous person is not a politician it seems to me to matter what kind of person they are. You can no longer separate out the neuroticism of Woody Allen’s art from his “private” misconduct. But the worst thing he could do to a stranger was get them to pay for a movie they then didn’t like.
Government is a whole other story. Despite all the high-falutin’ political rhetoric about bringing us together, at bottom government is force. It is the entity in society that claims and enforces a monopoly on the legitimate initiation of violence to compel compliance with its wishes.
Politicians routinely muddy the waters on this matter, claiming companies have coercive power and posing as David against, say, the Google Goliath. But it’s government that can seize your bank account, enter your property without consent on various grounds including to inspect your septic system for no reason, and escalate from a warning note to a fine to jail time to lethal force even over initially trivial matters. Try refusing to pay a traffic ticket and see what happens if you go all the way. They will too. And rightly so because the rules must be enforced.
In tyrannies the appalling personal qualities of a Hitler, Stalin or a Saddam Hussein are of course of vital public interest and of course unavailable. But even in democracies, with constitutional limits on the state including semi-guaranteed free speech, governments wield awesome power, often in frivolous ways. Given Lord Acton’s dictum that “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely” we need to know what sort of person is wielding it or frantically pursuing it.
Consider the problem of addiction. It surely requires a compassionate response. But if someone in authority is hooked on powerful drugs, it’s not a “private” matter. Especially if they’re lying about it, because of the spectre of hypocrisy.
None among us can claim to be free of that vice except by proving the contrary. But if someone in public life chronically combines deceit with self-satisfaction to an unusual degree, and lies with particular skill, we need to know.
Bill Clinton famously said otherwise. His policy of “compartmentalization” supposedly meant he could betray his wife without giving voters the slightest reason to doubt his trustworthiness. But Donald Trump proved otherwise, with the Narcissistic patterns in his personal and business affairs prominently and predictably on display in his political life. And he proved that Democrats who winked at “Slick Willy” were setting an irresponsible precedent.
Now I am going to make a couple of points about Justin Trudeau. First, I remember him attending one G7 summit as almost the only Western leader with any children, let alone more than replacement rate. And it struck me as positive and important, an expression of hope for the future and faith in our way of life glaringly absent among the Angela Merkels and Emmanuel Macrons.
Second, he has been polemically sanctimonious on gender politics. So if it turns out he was also guilty of some sort of transgression against “traditional” family values it would be pertinent.
Especially given his long record of hypocrisy across the board, from militant and sanctimonious anti-racism despite that blackface business to the Kokanee grope dismissed with moral relativism to taking a private vacation on the first National Truth and Reconciliation Day. Or just saying in the 2015 election “We have a plan to make housing more affordable for those who need it most – seniors, persons with disabilities, lower-income families, and Canadians working hard to join the middle class,” only to snarl in the face of a housing crisis in 2023 that “I’ll be blunt … housing is not a primary federal responsibility”.
My National Post colleague Tristin Hopper wrote about this housing issue right before news of the separation emerged. And surely it was a question not just of an evolving policy stance, but of the slick hypocrisy of someone for whom nothing is ever his fault. If you elect someone known to be a self-absorbed cad, guess what you get.
Right. SNC Lavalin. And when the separation story broke, Hopper added that “Sophie and Justin were more public about their relationship than basically any other political couple in Canada’s history”. You can’t flaunt your marvellous private life as a political asset then sweep the broken pieces under the rug as if nothing had happened, and the attempt is itself revealing. As when a politician makes their religious faith part of their appeal, gets caught faking it, and says it’s between them and God.
Or consider two other lively issues pertaining to U.S. President Joe Biden. First, he’s forever banging on about what a family man he is, but for years literally refused to acknowledge the existence of his seventh grandchild because she was part of his son Hunter’s disorderly addicted life.
Standing loyally by your troubled child really is an admirable quality and Biden had a right to make it part of his pitch to voters. But by the same token denying your innocent grandchild really is deplorable, to the point that he had to flipflop on it. And again, he did so in a revealing way.
NBC tried to make it sound like an achievement, saying “on Friday, Biden finally spoke out about his seventh grandchild whom, for years, he wouldn’t so much as acknowledge in public. Now, the president wants to meet little Navy Joan Roberts of Arkansas and dispel the notion that he was ignoring a vulnerable member of the Biden family tree that is at the root of his political identity, according to the people familiar with the matter.”
For my money, finally sending out the spinmeisters to claim that “now” you want to meet your grandkid for PR reasons reveals the true man in ways we need to know about precisely because he wouldn’t want us to.
Second, if it’s really true that his “loyalty” to his wayward son included participating in business calls as Vice-President that led to lucrative deals, including for him, he deserves not just opprobrium but jail time. It certainly can’t be brushed aside as “private”.
Prudence and charity are required here. We don’t want to be ghoulish, or gossips, or indulge in Schadenfreude over the failings of others when our own would not withstand scrutiny. Before mocking then-Prince Charles’ hacked pillow-talk consider how your own might play across the screen. And genuine repentance deserves forgiveness. But character matters in “public life”, especially government.
When people seek political office, they insist that they are trustworthy. When they then say their private life is none of our business, they reveal that they are not.