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Rob Porter Story Shows It’s Time To Agree Character Counts For Public Officials


In the twenty-first century, love and marriage don’t always go together, but can we finally admit that public and private lives should?

America, I know we’ve disagreed about this since at least the Clinton era. I wanted Bill Clinton to resign, while many others thought he deserved to stay. But here we are 20 years later, and judging by the reaction to the Rob Porter story, I’m inclined to say it’s time we agree to agree: egregious private behavior is concerning, and even disqualifying, for a public servant.

Look, let’s start by acknowledging this requires a massive shift in thinking for many of us. For you, it’s philosophical. For me, it’s a bit more personal. Of the countless stories of abuse and predatory behavior that have come out of this administration, Hollywood, and elsewhere in this #MeToo era, we’ve now stumbled onto a story where I actually know the accused. It’s not every day you can say that you know the person who’s Twitter’s top trending topic (at least in DC).

Now, I wasn’t super-close to Rob, but we were college classmates. We were freshmen together, and after he spent two years in England for his mission, he was a sophomore while I was a senior. Beyond that, we were both politically active, and as you might guess, the circle of known Republicans at Harvard in the late ‘90s was fairly small. So, let’s call us political allies.

I saw Rob at events on campus and at primary campaign events in New Hampshire in the run-up to the 2000 campaign. I don’t think I’ve seen him since I graduated, but since we knew many people in common — including his father, who was my thesis adviser in graduate school — I got periodic updates about him, as one does about old acquaintances.

Rob was the quintessential golden boy, always polished and put together. He exuded calm and confidence, like he knew exactly what he was doing with his life, and everything was going swimmingly. (This was before he got into Harvard Law or won his Rhodes Scholarship.) Notably on a campus where dating was exceedingly rare, Rob was also often accompanied by some beautifully coiffed young woman. Forget Mr. Darcy. Rob was Pinterest-perfect.

So, let’s just say I’m gobsmacked to learn that the guy I remember as always smiling and friendly, who always seemed like he had everything going on, has been accused of abuse by not one, but two ex-wives. Not being a judge, I suppose I should say the abuse is alleged, but the allegations look incredibly detailed and credible. They sound awful, and my heart goes out to both ex-wives and the anonymous ex-girlfriend, who apparently also found it difficult to leave him — but good on her that she did. No woman should ever feel trapped in a relationship with someone who is physically or emotionally abusive.

What gives me pause is not only realizing the yawning gap between Rob’s public and private personas, but also considering why he thought he could live like that, and why the White House let him? Twenty years ago, feminists (and other liberals) circled their wagons around Clinton, believing his support for legal abortion (and other issues) was more important than his personal failings. So began a widespread acceptance of the notion that someone could be good at his job, while being a flawed human being. After all, the theory goes, we’re all sinners, right?

I’ve long wondered what the fall-out from that shift might be, and perhaps it’s everything that launched #MeToo. Harvey Weinstein was a predator, but he won awards and made money for investors, so people turned a blind eye. Different details, same story with Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, and many others. But at the end of the day, can one person compartmentalize so successfully that the rot from one segment of his life really won’t infect the others?

Perhaps it’s time that we, the public, adjust our thinking, taking a page from background check protocol. High-level security clearances for political appointees with too much personal baggage often aren’t approved, because it’s likely to affect that person’s judgment and behavior.

A person is only one being, with the good and the bad all mixed up. Sometimes the bad is so dark, though, that it overshadows the good, and those people should take a step back from public service. As a society we can keep saying otherwise, but the truth will keep coming back to bite us again and again until we acknowledge it: Character counts.