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The personal pitfalls of Craigslist

Gary Caruso | Friday, February 18, 2011

It is astounding how devastating and immediate the consequences can be from a misstep while Internet socializing. On the surface, banter could surely not harm one responding to a “woman seeking a man” ad posted Jan. 14 on Craigslist that asked why men all “look like toads.” Unfortunately, ferocious forces fell upon a congressman who embellished his response: “Hope I’m not a toad. :) i’m a very fit fun classy guy. Live in Cap Hill area. 6ft 190lbs blond/blue. 39 … Lobbyist. I promise not to disappoint.”

Former up-and-comer U.S. Representative Chris Lee (R-N.Y.), from a district in upstate New York stretching from Buffalo along Lake Ontario to Rochester, abruptly resigned from congress on the same day the gossip website Gawker published his flirtatious e-mails. Elected officials should be allowed a personal life — even morally reprehensible ones — whenever such personal actions do not interfere with their official duties. It never halted the great stewardships of such presidents as Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower or John Kennedy. Attempted infidelity should not have forced the second-term congressman to resign simply because he shaved seven years off his age, lied about his career and marital status and sent a shirtless picture of himself to a woman he met through Craigslist.

Currently, U.S. Senators John Ensign of Nevada and David Vitter of Louisiana sit in congress despite their moral scandals — Ensign admitting an affair with a staff member and Vitter admitting the use of prostitution services in Washington. It should not matter that both are Republicans or espouse so-called conservative values like on Vitter’s website affirming that he is committed to “advancing mainstream conservative principles” and further noting that both he and his wife are lectors at their hometown church. Private lives should remain distinct from public service so long as actions do not compromise public duties.

Vitter sets a classic example for survival. Despite the scandal, Vitter won reelection by facing the charges head-on and apologizing. Calling it a serious sin for which he was completely responsible, Vitter continued, “Several years ago, I asked for and received forgiveness from God and my wife in confession and marriage counseling.” Vitter continued, “Out of respect for my family, I will keep my discussion of the matter there — with God and them. But I certainly offer my deep and sincere apologies to all I have disappointed and let down in any way.”

Lee could have weathered his scandal when he opened, “I regret the harm that my actions have caused my family, my staff and my constituents. I deeply and sincerely apologize to them all. I have made profound mistakes, and I promise to work as hard as I can to seek their forgiveness.” However, Lee threw in the towel with his quick resignation when he concluded, “The challenges we face in Western New York and across the country are too serious for me to allow this distraction to continue, and so I am announcing that I have resigned my seat in Congress effective immediately.”

Our governmental system judges and potentially term limits congressional representatives every two years. An upset public can voice its displeasure at the ballot box each election cycle. Lee should have made his mea culpa and fought for forgiveness. He portrayed the type of working political philosophy the GOP continually purges in primaries. While identifying as a conservative, Lee stood outside of the typical GOP cookie-cutter stereotype. He voted with Democrats on several measures like the expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, compensation for 9/11 responders, the reauthorization of the America Competes Act and the overhaul of our nation’s food safety system.

Legislatively, Lee outflanked the Democratic congressmen from his neighboring districts by obtaining $29.7 million in federal earmark funds, a mortal sin to Tea Party activists. From his perspective as a former executive of his family’s manufacturing business, Lee explained that earmarks can help promote job growth through such projects as high-speed rail, another program the GOP targets to eliminate. Further, in the wake of Representative Gabrielle Giffords’ shooting in Tucson, Lee reasonably stood up against powerful gun lobbyists by saying, “We need to look at … ensuring there are sufficient background checks to make sure that those who are unstable don’t have access to weapons of that nature.”

It is uncertain if GOP Speaker John Boehner encouraged Lee to step aside before he said Lee “made the right decision for himself and for his family” by resigning. So much in the GOP leadership is now calculated to maintain party control rather than allow members to follow their personal district interests. Ironies lie in just that outlook — GOP leaders limit professional personal outreach across party lines and private personal outreach across the Internet. Such a puritanical approach prevented Lee from waging a capable, interesting comeback fight he could have won.

Gary Caruso, Notre Dame ‘73, serves in the Department of Homeland Security and was a legislative and public affairs director in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at GaryJCaruso@alumni.nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.