We Fixate on a 'Flaw,' and So Overlook a Greater Evil

Carol Tavris is a social psychologist and writer in Los Angeles.

From all the stones being thrown at political candidates these days, you would have to conclude that Americans are an alarmingly sinless lot.

It is easy, of course, to have a clear moral vista from the vantage of a high horse. Have candidates been caught plagiarizing, smoking marijuana, weeping in public, having extramarital affairs? Throw them out. They're unfit for public office.

Well, sometimes they are, and sometimes they aren't.

The "fatal flaw" approach to candidate selection assumes that one lapse, one error of judgment, one personality failing, certainly one errant phase of life, characterizes for the worse the whole individual--forever. Perhaps. But as a general method of eliminating undesirable applicants for office, the fatal-flaw method has several fatal flaws itself.

I am not condoning moral lapses. But to me, the moral frenzy now sweeping the nation seems to be going after gnats and ignoring the fire-breathing monsters at our necks. The current mania for flaw-finding obscures the difference between private flaws and flaws of performance, between occasional errors and routine strategies, between human failures of judgment and chronic failures of character.

There is a moral and behavioral chasm between the occasional social use of marijuana and habitual use that affects job performance, just as there is between social drinking and alcoholism. There is a big difference between Sen. Joseph Biden's plagiarism of British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock's speech and Ronald Reagan's habitual untruths and unattributed "borrowings" from movie scripts.

Perhaps the undue media attention to the peccadilloes of aspiring candidates reflects public impotence at doing anything about the large-scale transgressions of people in power. Or possibly the attention to a candidate's sins aims to deflect our attention from those transgressions. Regardless, the fatal-flaw method of candidate selection obscures the real issues that should concern citizens: a candidate's ideas and performance.

Which fact about Judge Douglas Ginsburg, for example, was more likely to predict his future performance on the Supreme Court: the fact that some years ago he smoked marijuana--a socially acceptable drug, in his community, to his generation--with no consequences to his work; or the fact that he did not move immediately to disqualify himself in a conflict-of-interest situation in a pension case?

Forgive me, but the marijuana issue is a smoke-screen. It is to Ginsburg's generation what divorce was to Reagan's; as divorce became more prevalent and acceptable, we got our first divorced President. As the generation now in its 40s reaches the pinnacles of power, we'll have a pot smoking President, too ("Well, just a few times, when I was 26 . . . "). If we elect a Vietnam veteran, we might even have a President who has used heroin, the drug of choice for many soldiers during that terrible time. When they left Vietnam, they left the drug behind them. Shall we condemn them forever? Shall we condemn anyone who ever succumbed to peer pressure? The peer pressure of government "groupthink" is far more dangerous.

The fatal-flaw method is being fed by the return to puritanism, with its value of abstinence as a moral ideal--no drugs, no sex and very little chocolate cake. Abstinence is a goal that virtually ensures hypocrisy, for who among us has never yielded to the temptation of something illegal, immoral or fattening?

All this highfalutin talk about morality deflects from the moral violations that have far greater consequences in our society. This Administration has one of the highest numbers of accused or indicted appointees in this century; did they "just say no" to opportunities of corruption? Did the inside traders "just say no" to opportunities of greed? As the seven deadly sins go, lust and gluttony look pretty puny next to the big ones--avarice, which is virtually the signature sin of the present Administration, and pride, its sense of holier-than-thou self-righteousness.

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