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Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: One monkey business won't stop the show

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Off the porch and into the headlines... but Bill survived, and so will Len

Len Brown. Photo / Richard Robinson
Len Brown. Photo / Richard Robinson

Len Brown should have heeded the words of his namesake Rita Mae Brown, the American writer, ex-lover of tennis great Martina Navratilova and founder of a women-only polo club.

"Sex makes monkeys of us all," she wrote. "If you don't give into it, you wind up a cold, unfeeling bastard. If you do, you spend the rest of your life picking up the pieces."

The Brown imbroglio has much in common with the Monica Lewinsky scandal that threatened to engulf Bill Clinton during his second term in the White House.

Then, as now, there were claims - with some substance, it must be said - of a right-wing conspiracy to bring down an opponent who couldn't be defeated at the ballot box.

Both episodes raise difficult questions about the significance of personal misbehaviour by political leaders.

One side are those who insist that public and private morality are inseparable and high office should be the preserve of people with high personal standards on and off duty.

The counter-argument is that Brown is a mayor, not a monk or a Scout leader, so what he gets up to in his private life is a matter for him and his family.

The question that was never satisfactorily resolved during or after the Lewinsky affair is that of double standards: if someone who wasn't an important person behaved this way, would he or she get away with it?

As was pointed out at the time, those who insisted Clinton's tawdry and exploitative trysts with a White House intern were irrelevant were holding the President to lower standards of behaviour and accountability than a middle manager or school principal.

(Brown ducked the question when it was put to him this week. Asked if a council employee would be disciplined for having sex on council premises, he replied: "I'm not going to get into that." One can see why.)

Widening the scope, why should our elected leaders, lawmakers in chief, representatives of our communities and our country, be held to lower standards than, say, naval officers or professional athletes?

This week Commodore Kevin Keat became what is believed to be the highest ranking officer to be dismissed from the armed forces after being court martialled for failing to disclose his affair with a civilian subordinate.

And who can forget the torrents of condemnation and disgust directed at Tiger Woods when his serial infidelities were exposed?

There are differences. The military is a self-contained world with its own rules, traditions and imperatives, particularly on security and the maintenance of discipline.

And what got people saddling up their high horses in Woods' case was the sheer scale and tackiness of his philandering - all those cocktail waitresses and porn actors.

Furthermore, naval officers, school principals and golfers aren't where they are because people voted for them.

One of the Clinton camp's most persuasive defences was that it would have amounted to a denial of the people's will, in effect a parliamentary coup, to impeach him over a private indiscretion when he'd twice been elected president by an electorate which knew or should have known that he was, as his long-suffering wife put it, "a hard dog to keep on the porch".

Paradoxically, the fact that Brown wasn't known or rumoured to have a "zipper problem" places him on shakier ground.

His insistence that "the only thing I really need to be mindful of at this time is the view of the people who elected me as mayor" skates over the very high probability that some of them wouldn't have voted for him had the scandal broken a few days earlier.

If Brown is going to tough it out, as he gives every indication of doing, he should do exactly that.

Carrying on as if he's a dissident suffering at the hands of a totalitarian regime - "if there are no boundaries, no rights, none of the normal protections of the law, natural justice, the right to trial or a fair hearing" - invites derision and the assumption that he has yet to accept that he is the architect of his own misfortune and this is a matter of legitimate public interest.

In the end, and barring further revelations, he should survive. This is partly because we don't take local body politics very seriously and mainly because his failing is all too human - we relate to people making monkeys of themselves in this regard.

To paraphrase Bruce Springsteen, "It's hard to be a saint in the super city."

- NZ Herald

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