Love and politics in a cynical age

Ask an American about the connection between love and politics, and he'll probably conjure up heartbreaking images of Elizabeth Edwards, of embarrassed philanderers from both sides of the aisle or of the parade of long-suffering, dutiful political wives who, in the famous words of Hillary Rodham Clinton, "stand by their men."

The truth is that we don't generally associate politics or politicians with happy marriages and deep romance, let alone fidelity. The constant revelation of scandals and peccadilloes in the halls of power have trained us to expect the worst of those — particularly the men — we elect to shepherd and protect the interests of society. Somewhere along the line, Americans have even bought into the notion that a politician's private life, in particular his love life, has little or nothing to do with his efforts on behalf of the public good.

Some pols who betray love are punished at the polls or slink into retirement, never to return to the public stage in the same way again (Gary Hart, Larry Craig). But plenty of others, even among the family-values set, get second and even third chances. Teddy Kennedy (remember Chappaquiddick?), Rudy Giuliani (whose ex-wife accused him of "notorious adultery"), Newt Gingrich (married to wife No. 3). And closer to home, Gavin Newsom, the former San Francisco mayor whom Californians elected last month to the office of lieutenant governor, despite his affair with the wife of a close aide and friend.

Last week, after reading about the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, I started to wonder whether we're too quick to discount a connection between good spouses and good politics. This year's prizewinner, Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, was in jail in China rather than in Oslo accepting his award. In his absence, actress Liv Ullmann read aloud the statement Liu released last December as he was awaiting trial for "inciting subversion of state power." At the top, he sermonized against hatred ("enmity can poison a nation's spirit"), but his ending was an exquisite love letter to his wife, Liu Xia.

"I am sentenced to a visible prison," he wrote, "while you are waiting in an invisible one. Your love is sunlight that transcends prison walls and bars, stroking every inch of my skin, warming my every cell, letting me maintain my inner calm, magnanimous and bright, so that every minute in prison is full of meaning. But my love for you is full of guilt and regret, sometimes heavy enough to hobble my steps. I am a hard stone in the wilderness, putting up with the pummeling of raging storms, and too cold for anyone to dare touch. But my love is hard, sharp, and can penetrate any obstacles. Even if I am crushed into powder, I will embrace you with the ashes."

Wow. I don't expect to find words like that in the autobiography of any American political figure. (There was that smoochy kiss between Al and Tipper Gore on the podium at the 2000 Democratic convention, but even all those years before the amicable divorce, it seemed more about style than substance.)

When love comes up in politics, it's about brotherhood and sisterhood, the kind of emotion the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called for in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech: "all-embracing and unconditional love for all men" as "the key to the solution of the problems of the world."

Now, though, after reading Liu's lyrical words to his wife, I think our jaded, sophisticated acceptance of bad spouses/lovers might have led us to lower the bar for ardor in public life a bit too far. In Liu's case, one can easily imagine his dedication and loyalty to his wife nourishing and underlining his commitment to bringing true reform to China, even under the most oppressive conditions.

And if Liu's passion tells us something about his commitment to his cause, I fear that the lesser behavior of our callow pols suggests quite the opposite.

In the final analysis, we want our officials to love and do right by their country. Even the most cynical observer would have trouble disagreeing with the idea that love begins at home.

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