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The Politics of TMI

It used to be that a clownish past could disqualify you from office. Not anymore. But it still shouldn’t get you elected.

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Illustration by Matthew Woodson  

Now that Christine O’Donnell has definitively addressed the question of her witchhood, we can move on to a more serious accusation: Are you now, or have you ever been, a pundit? After all, O’Donnell, the surprise Republican nominee for Senate in Delaware, has been plagued by the outrageous statements she made while deployed as a talking head, a job that essentially consists of making outrageous statements. This leads to what we might call O’Donnell’s Paradox: The brand of overblown, ill-considered proclamations that now haunt her are exactly what made her an in-demand guest on Fox News and Politically Incorrect. And in a television form of blackmail, Bill Maher is releasing clips of O’Donnell embarrassing herself on his old show in an effort to persuade her into embarrassing herself on his new show—a tactic akin to releasing X-rated photos of someone in an effort to get her to shoot a porno.

Punditry and politics exist in easy symbiosis, with power players transitioning smoothly into roles as sideline loudmouths, like battered quarterbacks retiring to the broadcast booth. Eliot Spitzer’s misdeeds, for example, were enough to disqualify him from office but not, apparently, from hosting a cable talk show (at least for now). There are many, however, who believe that the Rise of the Pundits has degraded our public political conversation, and to those people, O’Donnell’s Paradox should be very reassuring. O’Donnell represents a test case in the reverse transition from pundit to politician, and there’s poetic comfort in the idea that you can’t just babble mindlessly (but provocatively!) for years, then turn around, run for office, and rely on the public to understand, you know, that it was just for TV. She was only dabbling in punditcraft.

Yet even as O’Donnell releases a political ad—claiming “I’m not a witch”—that seems better suited to Salem in 1692, she’s already been surpassed in the category of 2010’s Most Embarrassing Revelation. That title now belongs to Krystal Ball, a Democrat running for Congress in Virginia who’s currently explaining photos that surfaced online of her at a Christmas party with her lips around a dildo attached to her then-husband’s nose. These photos may capsize her political aspirations; they’ve also set the high watermark on electoral humiliation.

So O’Donnell’s Paradox might not be so reassuring after all. Bill Clinton’s non-inhaling was once considered a major impediment to electability. Now we’re considering candidates with a love child (Paladino), experience picnicking romantically on satanic altars, and a public history of nasal fellatio. Krystal Ball has decried these “politics of personal destruction,” but if she looks into the future, she might see a time when, thanks to cases like hers, loudmouth pundits and reckless partiers aren’t deterred from running for office due to past embarrassments because there will be no such thing as past embarrassments.

This may seem galling, but it’s actually progress. Another common complaint about our political process is that the cipher wins the day. Our divisive gotcha system, in which every past slipup is a time bomb, favors the inexperienced, the monastic, and the expertly secretive. (Think of Elena Kagan, on all counts.) Ball has correctly argued that her dilemma will “become increasingly common as my generation steps up and runs for office,” and she and O’Donnell, while comical footnotes now, may ultimately be remembered as pioneers. We’re stuck in a limbo between a time when almost anything could be covered up (from FDR’s wheelchair to Kennedy’s high jinks to, well, things we still don’t know) and a future when no past mistake can be concealed.

But increasingly, the simple existence of a gaffe doesn’t disqualify a candidate; instead, we, the voters, are left to decide exactly what kind of indiscretions will cost our support. No doubt many voters who are tittering about O’Donnell’s flubs were relieved when Obama’s admission of cocaine use didn’t automatically jettison him from the race. This is a TMI culture, but in politics, there’s no such thing as too much information. And once everyone knows everything about everybody, we might wind up with a better political system: one in which the best candidates prevail, and not just the ones who are best at keeping their mouths shut or covering their tracks.

Have good intel? Send tips to intel@nymag.com.


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