The Question is Infidelity

“Harry Truman said, 'A man not honorable in his marital relations is not usually honorable in any other.' Some voters don't feel comfortable supporting a candidate who's not remained faithful to his or her spouse.  Can you understand their position?”

That's what Katie Couric posed to the leading presidential candidates from both parties on the December 19 broadcast of CBS Evening News.  The segment was part of a regular feature on the newscast entitled “Character, Leadership and the Candidates” in which Couric asks each of the leading presidential contenders one question and plays their responses consecutively. Wednesday night's question was about infidelity.

This is the sort of question all the networks should be asking.  Character is a bedrock concern when America is choosing a leader.  By addressing the issue, Couric gives voters information about the frontrunners on topics that might not come up in debates, town hall meetings or talking points issued by the campaigns. 

CMI thinks the candidates' responses are instructive.  We have grouped the responses into categories: Character Counts; Good Policy Trumps Bad Character; Don't Ask Me to Judge; and I'm Learning from My Mistakes.

Category 1: Character Counts 

Candidates who answered this way were: Biden, Richardson, Edwards and Huckabee. 

BIDEN:   Look, this is really dicey territory. Let me say it this way. I think that one's character, one's honesty, one's integrity is a habit of the mind. I don't think people can be dishonest in one aspect of their life and compartmentalize it, and be viewed as being honest in other parts of their life. If the tendency is to cut a corner, if the tendency is not to tell the truth, the probability is that in a moment of crisis, were that person's interests are at stake, they're likely to revert to the bad tendencies. If voters make decisions relative to their leaders based on their needs, the single most important thing they're looking for is resilience, someone who can take a hit and get back up and move on.

RICHARDSON: I've been married to Barbara for 35 years. We've had our differences, our difficulties, but we've stayed together. But I think being faithful is an essential component of any relationship. It's whether a voter can trust you to be thinking about the common good as opposed to personal ambition or anything else.

EDWARDS: Of course. I mean, for a lot of Americans, including the family that I grew up with, it's fundamental to how you judge people and human character whether you keep your word and whether you keep what is your ultimate word, which is that you love your spouse and you'll stay with them. I think the most important qualities in a president in today's world are trustworthiness, sincerity, honesty, strength of leadership. And certainly that goes to a part of that.

HUCKABEE: If you violate the promise that you made to the one person on earth to whom you're supposed to be closest to, and this vow was made in front of your families, your closest friends, and God and you don't keep that, then can we trust you to keep a promise that you made to people you don't even know? It does come to the matter of, I think, whether the general population will trust you. And that if what you're saying is really true... they may believe that what you do is good thing, it's just they may not believe that what you say is necessarily the truth.

Category 2: Good Policy Trumps Bad Character.  Candidates who answered this way were Obama and Clinton.

OBAMA:  Some of our greatest presidents haven't always been terrific husbands. And some who have been wonderful husbands have been rotten presidents. So I think that other countries have typically taken a little more casual an approach when it comes to the personal lives of elected officials and I think that there has to be some space for privacy. I mean, there are some people who might say that the fact that I indulged in drugs when I was young disqualifies me. I mean, there are a lot of ways that you can apply that kind of morality. What I'm always hopeful of is that people judge our public servants based on their passion, their commitment, their public integrity, how they operate with that public trust.

CLINTON:  Well, I can certainly understand why some people would feel that way and that is their perfect right to do so. But I think that would be a tough standard for most of American history to be able to meet when we look at people who've made a big difference in our country. I think there's more to someone's honor and integrity and to their public service. I think sometimes we confuse the private and the public in ways that are not necessarily useful.  So of course it's a deeply personal matter that I take personally, but I think on the public stage, there are a number of people who have represented our country, led our country, accomplished great achievements on behalf of our country who might have some challenges in their personal life but have made a great contribution.

Category 3: Don't Ask Me to Judge.  Candidates who answered this way were McCain (who really straddled categories two and three with his answer), Romney and Thompson.  Interestingly in the interview, Romney is the only candidate to get a followup question.

MCCAIN: I think it's up to each person's personal view of the individual. And everybody has a different view. I say that because you and I know that there have been some leaders in American history, the latest information about Franklin Delano Roosevelt. I happen to still think that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was an important president at a time in our history when we needed some courage and so it's... that's just, frankly, a judgment that I leave to others.

ROMNEY: Well, I'm certainly faithful to my spouse. I'd rather be with Anne than any other person in the world. I know other people have had other circumstances. If a marriage doesn't work, if people really can't get along, if they end up really disliking each other, then I guess it's appropriate to go find a new relationship or move away from marriage. But I would recommend people doing that in an honorable way.

COURIC: Well, what do you think of people who base their judgment-- at least partially-- on a candidate's ability to remain faithful to his or her spouse?

ROMNEY: You know, I let people look at me any way they want to. I'm not going to give advice to the American people in which aspects of a person's life they look at. I think people should be able to do what they want to do. And express their own views when they get into the voting booth. I'm not going to tell them how to do that.

THOMPSON: Everybody's got to make up their own mind about that. I think that you can evaluate a candidate any way you want to. It's a free country. There are a lot of things that go into it. Nobody's perfect. Everybody has weaknesses and has made mistakes one time or another in their life. But everybody's got to decide for themselves what they want to consider, go into making up the leader that's going to have to deal with these problems of the country.

Category 4: I'm Learning from My Mistakes.  Rudy Giuliani has this category to himself.

GIULIANI: The only thing I can say to people is I'm not perfect, you

know? And I've made mistakes in my life and not just in that area, in other areas. And I try to learn from them. I feel sorry about them. I try to learn from them so I don't repeat them. Sometimes I even repeat them and then you try again. I mean, you... so I have maybe a more generous view of human beings, a more generous view of life. It comes from growing up as a Catholic. We're all sinners, we're all struggling, we're all trying hard. We ask for forgiveness and then we try to improve ourselves again. And I relate to other people that way, I relate to the world that way.

These are the responses that aired on the broadcast.  For the full text of the responses, click here.

Other questions Couric has asked the candidates include discussing what their biggest mistakes were, which country they fear the most, who they consider to be the most influential person and their views on climate change.

While each of the network evening newscasts has devoted time to one-on-one features with the candidates, Couric's effort to address character and leadership issues in this unique format is welcome.  Character does matter.  Voters need to know where the candidates will lead them.

Kristen Fyfe is senior writer at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center.