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Ethos and Politics

posted: 1.13.12 by Donna Winchell

Aristotle knew centuries ago the political power of ethos or ethical appeal. He knew the power of a good man speaking but also the power of impropriety or immorality to draw attention from a man’s words or ideas. It’s hard for logical appeal to overcome a bad reputation, and there is no better time to see this principle illustrated than during a presidential campaign. According to the official Monticello Web site,  as early as 1802, an unsuccessful and disgruntled office seeker published charges that Thomas Jefferson fathered children by his slave Sally Hemings. Although the truth3276256609_6e99895b20_m of that allegation has been the subject of debate for over two hundred years, it doesn’t seem to have hurt Jefferson’s reputation—then or now. Jefferson simply refused to respond. In our world of DNA testing and Internet research, it’s harder to hide skeletons, and simply refusing to respond is taken as an admission of guilt. Reporters might have looked the other way in the face of John F. Kennedy’s indiscretions, but now digging up the dirt on politicians seems to be part of the job.

The fact that Herman Cain had no experience in government and that his claim to fame was as chairman and CEO of Godfather’s Pizza didn’t keep voters from listening to his 9-9-9 economic plan. What stopped them from listening and forced him to withdraw from the campaign were allegations of sexual impropriety. Newt Gingrich would bring more experience to the presidency, but he joins a long list of politicians whose careers have been harmed or ended because of sex scandals. It is widely accepted that he has been unfaithful to his wives, including while the first was recovering from cancer. On, Bonnie Goldstein writes, “Maybe Newt Gingrich’s marital history isn’t the leading predictor of his performance as president. But the way a man treats the women in his life does, as he himself has acknowledged, offer us a window into his character.”

A nice phrase—“a window into his character.” The way that a politician treats women offers a glimpse into his ethos, and that’s why voters don’t trust politicians who do their women wrong. Jefferson, a widower, may have gotten away with his political career intact in spite of possibly having had six children by his slave. We may be a more tolerant nation today in many respects, but we like to think that we hold our presidential candidates to a high moral standard.

Categories: Argument
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