Friedman: Kitzhaber’s Road to Redemption

Richard Nixon had one with Watergate and Bill Clinton had his with Monica Lewinski. Eliot Spitzer, Anthony Weiner, John Edwards, Newt Gingrich and even Hillary Clinton had one too. And now there’s John Kitzhaber. It seems that almost all politicians, regardless of their political affiliation, have their scandal. And in today’s world, most survive.

After it was revealed in January that Cylvia Hayes, Kitzhaber’s fiancée, may have received financial benefits due to her relationship with the governor, the public eye has been focused on the political turbulence in Salem. Portland alt-weekly Willamette Week then published an exposé showing Kitzhaber’s office attempted (unsuccessfully) to destroy thousands of emails. Oregonians had been trusting of Kitzhaber. And though state politicians called for him to resign, many Oregonians, especially young ones, weren’t as eager to oust the governor. Still, Kitzhaber resigned 32 days after entering an unprecedented fourth term in office.

Now, federal and state criminal investigations have been opened and ethics complaints have been filed against Kitzhaber. The charges are serious and so is the scandal. But, given its non-sexual nature and relative innocence compared to other political transgressions, even the New York Times has said some Oregonians “believe the whole thing may be much ado about little.”

In my eyes, these Oregonians know little of government accountability’s importance to society.

And society is reacting as it normally does — with disinterest — although this scandal may be different altogether. “It actually is quite different in that most governors are pretty resilient when it comes to surviving these kinds of scandals,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, associate professor of political science at the University of Houston. He didn’t expect Kitzhaber to resign. An apology would have been more likely of a well-respected governor.

In our post-Clinton-Lewinski fiasco world, a scandal carries with it a different ethos and an apology from Kitzhaber would have aligned with that new paradigm. Before mass media there, of course, were lapses in political accountability but they could be swept under the rug, silenced forever. And, when the news of stealing or cheating or wrong-doing did break, politicians were often reprimanded from the social fabric as forever irredeemable nuisances who breached the public’s trust.

Now the public forgets, according to Rottinghaus. Part of the root cause for our societal forgiveness and short-term memory may be desensitization to scandal. There was a time not too long ago when politicians were revered as sinless social servants. Redemption after public shame was more difficult to achieve back then. And shame was less public.

As rhetoricians put it, politicians use “tragic redemption” to regain the public’s trust. By scapegoating or publicly apologizing they seek to purify themselves to the masses who know no better than to forgive and forget. “Since the Clinton scandals, it’s become pretty apparent that the public looks the other way when it comes to these kinds of scandals,” said Rottinghaus. To me, that won’t do. Collectively we need a stronger resolve to uphold integrity and accountability in our politicians.

Yet Kitzhaber’s resignation, and likely eventual attempt at redemption, may actually boost his popularity. “In terms of public esteem, it may be that in fact presidents and governors grow in esteem depending on the circumstance,” said Rottinghaus. In this circumstance, Kitzhaber’s transgressions can be perceived as mostly innocuous to the public. And in short, much of the public, especially Oregon’s millennials, just don’t care, according to a Statesman Journal report.

That’s not right. There’s an air of forgiveness that in many respects is not appropriate to allow our public servants to take advantage of. And, Kitzhaber may still benefit from our collective short attention span. His time as Oregon’s governor may be over but his political influence can rebound in ways that we may not expect (e.g. Bill Clinton’s power is perhaps greater now than ever).

If the public cares, the politicians will too. The only way to change the behaviour of politicians is to impose consequences on them for betraying our trust and breaking our laws. And, now that we do have tools like social media that enable us to opine fervently, we should take to them and let our leaders know just how we feel.

Follow Gordon Friedman @gordonrfriedman

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Gordon Friedman

Gordon Friedman

Gordon Friedman is a Crime Reporter for The Daily Emerald. He is also writes feature stories and is the Editor in Chief of Ethos magazine.