What to do with morally errant politicians? We're all over the map on that one, but for me it mostly comes down to putting the various specifics in context and deciding if the picture of the person who emerges is the kind of person you want running your town, province or country.
For instance, politicians cheating on their spouses. All kinds of factors have to be considered before a voter can conclude there's cause for alarm.
If it's a garden-variety cheat, I'm probably going to be OK with it. Sure, I dream of a world where garden-variety cheating is unnecessary because we're all so happy in our relationships, but for now, I don't think it indicates anything about whether a person is fit to govern, other than they're a lot like the rest of us. (They do lose a lot of credibility with me if they lie, though.)
But now let's consider Elliot Spitzer, the New York governor who got caught out buying high-end services from sex workers. I felt very differently about that form of cheating - not because it involved sex workers, but because Spitzer in his political life had played the morality card and led crack-downs on sex workers.
So I would judge a guy like that to be a liar and a hypocrite, not to mention stupidly wasteful given how much he was paying for the sex. That is not a person I would deem fit to lead. The "crime" - cheating on your spouse - is the same, but the different contexts change everything.
The problem from a voter's perspective ought not to be whether a politician's heart (and brain) goes wandering, but if it wanders in a way that reveals deeper character flaws indicating aspects of the person that go completely against the qualities of a leader.
And in that context, consider Rob Ford.
Again, I don't think things like illegal drug use, colourful friends or histories with addiction are absolute indicators as to whether a politician is fit for office. I don't know about you, but I could think of at least a dozen moments in my own life that I would not want caught on video. (Happily, smoking crack is not one of them.)
I accept that people are complex. I remind myself regularly of my own glass house anytime I feel the urge to become high and mighty. We are the sum of all our parts, and in my experience people who have known darkness and trouble often make the very best leaders.
In the context of the Ford story, however, the alleged act of smoking crack on video is just a sidebar. That was just the latest story line to be added to the heap of story lines that the Toronto mayor has generated since taking office. Truthfully, given all that has gone before about him, is it that big of a surprise to think that Rob Ford might have smoked crack?
So in this particular instance, I was already convinced that Ford is not political leadership material. We don't want our communities and countries led by people who repeatedly make disastrous personal decisions and then lie to cover them up. It's not about whether there are skeletons in the closet, it's when they're still piling up like crazy, reinforcing the image of a dysfunctional, disorganized and chaotic person who doesn't learn from failure. Is that the person to lead your town?
I think a person can have secrets and still be an excellent leader. An act has to be put into context, and measured against the actions the person subsequently took to resolve the problem. I once saw a provincial cabinet minister survive being outed as a former heroin addict, because the moment the news hit she responded with dignity and honesty about that period in her life. The way she handled the situation made me respect her even more as a leader.
But that's not how the Ford story has played out. He went into the smoking-crack revelations already looking all wrong, and everything that has happened since has underlined my perception of the man as an unfit mayor.
The thing that gets me the most is that Ford had to know the video was out there, and that one day people would see for themselves the truth about whether he did or didn't. But nope, he just kept denying it. The sheer stupidity of that is indicator enough of a man who isn't leadership material, which is why I lost respect for Bill Clinton after his "I never had sexual relations with that woman" speech. Past secrets don't define a leader, but really poor decision-making before and after certainly does.
As does honesty, a quality that I think we've really let slide in our governments. What does it say about a country or community when people can't trust that their political leaders are being honest with them? I've got no problem with political leaders having skeletons, I just want to know they have the insight, courage and maturity to grow through their mistakes, not just stumble incoherently through one after another.
So yes, the way a politician manages personal problems definitely counts for me. As does honesty. And competent at their jobs, because honesty and ethics are important but so is being able to do the work.
It's rare that someone comes along who scores badly in every category. But those ones just have to go, and should be cause for serious reflection among the citizenry as to what they were thinking by electing such a person. The Rob Ford video might be the final nail, but he's been building that coffin of his for a very long time.