Rush Limbaugh is a pitiful street junkie. Arnold Schwarzenegger is a molester. Bill Bennett is no high priest of virtue; but a late-night, high-stakes casino gambler.
Limbaugh, Schwarzenegger and Bennett: Remember those names. Say them to yourself whenever you see an ad touting Republicans as the family-values candidates.
Look, whether you and I like it or not, swing voters — the group in the middle who turn all elections — don't give a rip about the personal failings of politicians. That's why Bill Clinton left office with higher approval ratings than Ronald Reagan. It's why Arnold won in a walk in California. It's why Limbaugh's career will live on after they wash the dope from his veins.
So as a liberal, I didn't get too worked up when Limbaugh, Schwarzenegger and Bennett got their bad headlines recently.
But I did see it as a chance to remind right-wing zealots that their candidates' family-values commercials look silly.
C'mon. Liberal Democrats can match conservative Republicans moral for moral, sin for sin. There's no difference between parties when it comes to that. People are good or bad based on their life experiences, personal choices and individual philosophies, not their party affiliation.
To some, abortion is murder because, they argue, life begins at conception. To some others, the death penalty is state-sanctioned homicide because, they say, DNA technology has found people headed for execution who were innocent. They say that proves some people have been unjustly killed by the state.
Sure, Clinton had an extramarital affair with an intern. But Newt Gingrich did the same with a young House of Representatives aide, which blew up his marriage — his second marriage, at that. In fact, that staffer is now the third wife to believe he's committed to her for life.
It's only the Republicans who try to fool those swing voters into believing they're holier than everybody else is. But in politics context is everything.
Do you remember when George W. Bush landed on that aircraft carrier after hostilities in the Iraqi war were declared over? Remember, he had a banner hung on the ship's deck as a backdrop for the media's cameras that said, "Mission Accomplished." Yet more soldiers have died in Iraq after the war allegedly ended than during the official operations.
Believe me, in today's context no Republican will run a campaign commercial showing that footage. It's more likely that a Democratic candidate would.
Here's how context has affected the family values issue on a local level. Cincinnati City Councilman Pat DeWine has always laced his campaign materials with family-values rhetoric and style. Two years ago he appeared at campaign events with his wife and kids in tow. I saw them at a parade, all smiling, DeWine pulling his children in a little red wagon.
He's now in the middle of a divorce, and there's a letter being mailed to a number of Republican households that was sent by some of Pat's former neighbors. It alleges an extramarital affair and says that his wife first learned about it by listening to talk radio. His neighbors suggest that Republican voters should cast their votes for other good candidates who are available, ones who truly live by their family values. It seems that Pat DeWine is now getting his own family values shoved up his political butt.
Not withstanding DeWine's embarrassing situation, personal issues don't turn elections. So why do Republicans publicly boast moral superiority? Maybe they don't do good research to know the minimal effect of the issue. Possibly it's to rally their conservative base, who actually believe Republicans are cleaner. Maybe they just have trouble with the truth.
But my stringing out the list of Republican hypocrisies could give conservatives that useful lesson in context. DeWine sure as hell won't be running any ads this season implying he's the man who shares your family values. Limbaugh won't come back on the radio and say that dope fiends need to do hard time in prison. Schwarzenegger won't be doing any public service ads for women's groups that decry workplace sexual harassment. In fact, these days grabbing a woman's breast without her permission is called "Arnold-ing."
Everyone hopes for leaders we can be proud of, leaders who share our values. But the more important values to use to make political choices are ones dealing with your view of the world.
Some think government's only job is to help them protect their lifestyle. So if they have their economic situation pretty well in order — a satisfying job, quality health care, maybe private schooling for their kids and some entertainment dollars left over — they value small government, less taxes and a good police force. On the other hand, if for whatever reason life is a struggle, you might value a more involved government, one that will protect you from, say, predatory lenders, heartless employers or tax handouts that go to large corporations.
Those are the kind of values elections actually turn on — not fake ones such as whether someone inhaled a joint or had some sex they shouldn't have. It still leaves us with plenty to argue about — good old American-style debating.
Maybe with so many personal messes falling into the laps of conservative Republican figures, we'll be spared the pontificating by the elephant party in the future. Maybe commercials claiming that "I share your family values" will look as stiff today as footage of Bush strutting across a ship's deck in flight gear acting like he's some Texan badass.
Damn, though, I love to see hypocrisy plastered all over my television. It makes a commentator's job so easy.
PUTTIN' OUT THE BONE appears monthly.