Judging the private lives of public officials

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Dobel / PRIVATE LIVES OF PUBLIC OFFICIALS ADMINISTRATION & SOCIETY / May 1998 This article discusses the moral importance of privacy and its place in the lives of public officials. It examines the tension between the legitimate claims of citizens and overseers to scrutinize the private lives of public figures and the rights of officials to privacy. It argues that these legitimate reasons break down in practice almost all barriers to scrutiny due to the weaknesses of the limits and the incentives of American politics and the modern media. The article explores the consequences of a world where public officials possess no private lives. These unsavory consequences exemplify the dangers of denying any boundaries between private and public. The article concludes that citizens need to redefine the boundaries of private and public life and suggests standards by which citizens can judge the private lives of public officials.JUDGING THE PRIVATE LIVES OF PUBLIC OFFICIALSJ. PATRICK DOBEL University of WashingtonScandals in their private lives have destroyed the careers of many prominent American public officials. In recent years, the vice president of the United States, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, seven governors, two chairs of the House Ways and Means Committee, the House whip, five senators, more than 30 members of the House, and the head of the FBI have resigned under pressure because of private scandals. Four presidential campaigns have been ruined, and three Supreme Court nominations have been withdrawn due to scrutiny of the candidates private lives. In the past 20 years, 32 people were convicted of treason, and in all but one case, the individuals committed treason for private reasons involving money, sex, or substance abuse. Discussions over private matters of friendship, economics, family, religion, or sexual relations have intruded into campaigns, nominations, and even deliberations over career officialsAUTHORS NOTE: The author would like to thank Richare Zerbe, Walt Williams, Bob Plotnick, and Hubert Locke for their critical comments on various aspects of this article. He owes a special debt to the reviewers who helped clarify the argument.ADMINISTRATION & SOCIETY, Vol. 30 No. 2, May 1998 115-142 1998 Sage Publications, Inc.115116ADMINISTRATION & SOCIETY / May 1998at all levels of government. The private lives of public officials have become public with serious consequences for the quality of political life and discourse. When President Clintons White House lawyer, Vincent Foster, committed suicide, he left a despairing note complaining that in American politics ruining people is considered sport (Apple, 1993). Attacks on public figures private lives are as old as American politics. The intensity of the modern focus on private lives, however, has occurred for several reasons. First, the self-imposed restraint of the media to avert their eyes from private lives of officials ended, whereas legal developments limited the libel claims that public officials could make against malicious accusation (Sabato, 1991). Second, the decline of the political parties has given the media more prominence as gatekeepers to office and has made politics more person focused. Third, candidates and interest groups exploit the new media standards and use private scandals to discredit competitors and their positions. Finally, groups ranging from the religious right to some feminists have questioned the validity of the distinction between public and private lives, thereby weakening the claims of privacy that public officials might assert. This article will argue the dilemma that the controversies over private lives present arises from the clash of two legitimate moral claims. First, individuals and public officials, in particular, have legitimate claims to privacy. Second, principals and citizens have strong rights to information about the persons who occupy public office. This conflict generates some broad guidelines but leaves no clear and absolute demarcations between public and private lives. This lack of definitive closure is aggravated because modern politics and media coverage erode the privacy of public officials. The article concludes with standards balancing a respect for privacy with legitimate scrutiny by which citizens and principals should 1 evaluate the private lives of public officials.PRIVACY CLAIMS OF PUBLIC OFFICIALS Rights to privacy involve the capacity to protect realms of ones life from scrutiny or control by others. Privacy protects a range of domains covering ones body, thoughts, emotions, religion, relations of intimacy and friendship, property rights, or personal associations. Privacy rights also extend to strong moral expectations about how private information will be used or weighed when it is obtained. For instance, one may not be able to control outside knowledge about his or her religion or intimate life,Dobel / PRIVATE LIVES OF PUBLIC OFFICIALS117but people have the right to ask that the information not be considered in certain judgments about them, much as a jury might be instructed to discount certain information in its verdict. The actual content of privacy rights are negotiated within a society and can change over time as privacy claims are accommodated to other moral norms. Privacy is achieved through internalized social practices that lead people to respect others privacy, such as when a person refuses to eavesdrop on a conversation, averts his or her eyes when passing an open window, or discounts private facts and focuses on competence in job decisions (Reiman, 1976). Strong moral foundations ground the rights to privacy. First, they arise from privacys intimate connection to personal autonomy and freedom. Privacy underlies the capacity to take possession of ones own life by granting persons the capacity to stand back from the demands of public life, peer pressure, or authority. People can reflect in solitude or with friends or advisors to make sense of, reject, reshape, or accept the many internalized dimensions of selfhood. Claims to protect ones body from involuntary intrusions form a foundation, but these protective claims move quickly to encompass attributes of mind and spirit, such as thoughts, emotions, religious beliefs, or intimacy. Privacy provides an antidote to the incursions of socialized power into ones psyche and physical world (Rubenfeld, 1989). Privacy gains greater moral worth from how it supports human relationships. Relations of intimacy and friendship need privacy to flourish. The exclusionary and protective nature of the private realm can encourage the risk taking and revelations through which intimacy and trust grow. Privacy abets the growth of common and shared experiences that become foundations for reference and trust among human beings. Under the rubric of private relations, individuals can legitimately, with no moral harm, prefer some to others, such as family, friends, colleagues, or coreligionists (Gerstein, 1978; Nagel, 1978). Privacy encourages cooperation and trust within different types of relationships, ranging from personal and family 2 affiliations to clubs, economic partnerships, or religion. This enables the individual to withhold or reveal the self to people in different ways and to sustain a rich personal life, so that people can develop different types of relations with different individuals and not have all relations reduced to one transparent level (Rachels, 1975). Private relations allow a communal sense to grow and to nourish many forms of social practice and association 3 (Lippke, 1989; Schoeman, 1992). Privacy also contributes to critical judgment and free reflection. Individuals cannot judge and think with honest clarity when they must judge118ADMINISTRATION & SOCIETY / May 1998in the public eye and under the scrutiny of others who possess authority, power, and influence over them (Benn, 1975). Privacy encourages persons to give and receive advice with honesty and care. Privacy also contributes to creativity and innovation in life. Withdrawal from conventional demands and scrutiny can provide the psychological or social freedom from which to challenge accepted wisdom or find unique insight. All these aspects counterpoise the world of Winston Smith in George Orwells (1947) 1984, where every action is monitored by Big Brother. The antithesis of privacy is slavery, where a person cannot have a private life or relations of intimacy or control over ones body or creations (Patterson, 1982). The right to privacy plays out as a complex moral and social practice. It should not, however, be elevated to an irrefutable and opaque right. Because claims of privacy can hide or exclude, they can be abused and can hide harm or oppression. For instance, the privacy of family can protect the rights of a spouse to abuse, or the private suffering of a cancer patient hides that fact that the cancer was caused by the dumping of toxic wastes by a private company. Any claim of privacy can be legitimately challenged by other moral claims and be renegotiated on those bases. The moral realm of privacy has particular cogency for public officials. Privacy provides the opportunity for individuals to reflect on actions and practices and to recover from the physical and psychological demands of public office. Private lives enable people to keep intimate relations alive and meet obligations to family, friends, and partners that can wilt and be neglected because of the demands of official life. Energy, insight, endurance, and capacity for innovation and independent judgment for public officials flow from the resilience and richness of their private lives. Their private lives can support or limit the public obligations and provide other sources of reference beyond interest groups and power (Dobel, 1992). Democratic life can drive officials to make judgments on the basis of short-term calculation goaded by public opinion. Privacy carves out a realm for intimacy, reflection, grace, or prayer to restore persons and anchor their moral lives. Strong private lives provide the moral resources for officials to make judgments that move beyond public opinion but still hold them accountable. Contrary to some feminist commentary, privacy in public life has par4 ticular moral urgency for women and minorities. Women and minorities often enter the public realm as outsiders, and social mores place stricter limits on their acceptable behavior. Social myths that sustained their outsider status and limited their access to power often use claims about the private place or insufficiencies of women and minorities. For women, inDobel / PRIVATE LIVES OF PUBLIC OFFICIALS119particular, because of their traditional association with the private realm, entering public life entails a number of risks. They can be accused, in the way men seldom are, of abandoning their private obligations for public ones. Additionally, the sexual and economic limits regarding acceptable behavior for women are drawn more rigidly and narrowly. Violations of these strict codes can be and have been used to subvert womens credibility in public life. Women cannot rely on patterns of acceptance or rituals of public excuse or forgiveness that would enable them to escape public censure and delegitimation in the way men might to handle accusations of pri5 vate impropriety. Even as these mores change, women and minority public officials need the protections of privacy to limit the depredations on their legitimacy that can occur by exploiting traditional roles, images, and limitations (Brown, 1988; Elshtain, 1981).6OFFICE AND RELEVANCE All individuals start with a strong prima facie claim to privacy that limits the ability of people to pry into their lives. The dilemma arises from the legitimate moral rights of principals (and citizens acting as principals) to evaluate the persons to whom they delegate power, responsibility, and authority. Principals have a moral responsibility as citizens, overseers, or superiors to ensure that the persons to whom they give career, appointed, or elected office have the competence to do the job. As individuals who will be subject to their actions, principals have an additional moral interest in ensuring that officials will not abuse their power. The actual range of areas of which principals have a right to know and how they should weigh information depends on the structure of the office. Public office involves what Michael Walzer calls separation, in which one realm has its own moral logic and demands that are not necessarily continuous with, although they may be grounded in, the rest of ones moral life (Nagel, 1978; Walzer, 1983). In this sense, the domains of private life would cover the areas of life outside of competencies needed for the office and generally cover most events prior to the taking of office, such as private economic relations, religious affiliations, friendships, familial and intimate relations, recreation, sexual life, gift giving, personal pleasures and hobbies, thoughts, secrets, and even personal prejudices and beliefs. In this tension between two moral claims, the rights of privacy suggest that people should be judged only on the basis of what is relevant to their performance. Any legitimate scrutiny of private lives should be linked to120ADMINISTRATION & SOCIETY / May 1998the relevance of the private considerations to the competent performance of official duties (Lichtenberg, 1990). At first blush, this narrows the scrutiny of private life. It should mean pieces of information, such as scandals in private life where personal conduct violates accepted mores but which does affect the ability to perform in office, should be ignored or discounted. The power of the relevance standard to exclude or discount private information depends on the clarity of boundaries around an office, the competencies needed, a notion of integrity, and the idea that humans are not seamless creatures. The very idea of role or office depends on peoples capacity to discipline themselves and demarcate their private and public lives. Public office is bound by law, standards, and expectations of impartial, fair, and competent action. To live such a role requires personal integrity, which means that persons can live up to promises they make and can balance commitments to different roles in their lives that often create tensions 7 within the self. It is a fundamental expectation of office that individuals live up to promises and limit private considerations in performance (Dobel, 1990a). For instance, officials should be capable of putting aside personal hardship, such as marital problems, family pain, or just plain bad days, on their jobs. Officials are expected to overcome personal prejudice or dislikes in their judgments. It can be a mark of character and honor when a person overcomes personal travail or prejudice to fulfill his or her 8 responsibilities. Public integrity sustains this capacity for separation and helps constrain political conflict within an institutional framework. Integrity enables individuals to differ without reducing conflict to vendetta, yet permitting civil disagreement without poisoning all human relations (Dobel, 1990a, 1990b; March & Olsen, 1988). The moral claim to focus on performance is underlined by the empirical fact that private rectitude does not guarantee public honor or effectiveness, nor does private moral stumbling indicate public moral insufficiency. Henry Adams (1918, pp. 128-167) remarked ruefully that when his father, Charles Frances Adams, the American ambassador to England, fought to keep England from aiding the Confederacy during the Civil War, all the men whom Adams most respected as private individuals, such as Gladstone and Lord Russell, dissembled and supported the Confederacy. However, the individuals whom Adams did not respect as private individuals, such as Palmerston, proved to be reliable allies in keeping England from supporting the Confederacy (Dobel, 1988). When he was Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton paid extortion money to the husband of a woman to carry on an affair with her. Yet when the husbandDobel / PRIVATE LIVES OF PUBLIC OFFICIALS121asked for a government position, Hamilton refused because the man was not competent to serve office. He revealed the entire sordid affair and risked public humiliation over private actions rather than sacrifice public honor (Ross, 1988, pp. 20-29; Rossiter, 1964, pp. 28-30). The structure of public office, then, suggests the following legitimate concerns for principals: accountability, delegation, honesty and promise keeping, coercion and power over others, use of public resources, and symbolic and ritual responsibilities. Morally, public officials derive their authority from the claim to act on behalf of citizens (French, 1983, pp. 145; Nagel, 1978). Citizens consent and obedience authorize their actions and ground their legitimacy. Citizens finance their office. Public officials act on behalf of laws that carry the full coercive control of the state behind them. In theory, public officials are accountable to all citizens, and all citizens are principals who have the right to acquire relevant knowledge about the officials public performance, most clearly in elections where citizens 9 act directly as principals to elect and delegate. The rights of citizens to acquire relevant information about public officials, however, are limited by delegation. Legal and moral delegations remove the right to scrutinize lives from the general citizenry and place it in hands of institutional principals (Burke, 1986). This delegation respects privacy because it limits the number of people who have the moral warrant to intrude into the privacy of officials. This changes, however, as individuals move to higher levels of responsibility and power. The higher the level of responsibility, the more effective power and discretion an official has, the more legitimate broad public scrutiny will be. Usually this implies that career officials have the most protections, appointed officials less, and elected legislators and executives the fewest privacy claims. In this light, the moral structure of office can best be seen as obligations 10 held together by a web of promises and oaths. When persons take on public responsibilities, they promise to abide by the standards, laws, rules, and procedures that constitute and bound their positions. They pledge a goodfaith effort to perform conscientiously the tasks of their position and act with the competence required by office. Personal honesty in making promises and being accountable is basic to their legitimacy. Additionally, officials control public resources that should be used with efficiency and care. Often they stand at the intersections of wealth and creation and face temptations to use government power and resources for personal gain. In addition, some officials exercise considerable coercive power over the lives of citizens, which can be abused to harm citizens (Kipnis, 1976). Most official positions entail discretion. As power and responsibility122ADMINISTRATION & SOCIETY / May 1998increase, discretion also increases. This discretion brings constant pressure from the morally complex and troubling decisions that face public officials. The exercise of coercion over time or the decision to use means not available in private life intensely strains the moral capacities of individuals (Dobel, 1988, 1992; Walzer, 1973; Williams, 1978). Tragic choices, dirty hands, morally problematic outcomes or means, and tradeoffs among good outcomes pervade government and can erode the moral commitments of officials (French, 1983, pp. 243-248; Hampshire, 1978a; Nagel, 1978). Individuals implicitly promise to resist these temptations and not abuse their office. Finally, many positions carry a symbolic and ritual dimension. Officials may perform public rituals that help legitimize, reassure, and provide access to citizens. Often they invoke ritual and rhetoric, and represent the aspirations of a people or program. Ceremonial tasks and presence pervade the life of higher level public officials. Trust in government and programs is earned by individuals acting in these capacities, as well as by institutional effectiveness (Edelman, 1985, 1988). In sum, public responsibilities demand individuals who are honest, accountable, and competent, possess integrity and self-discipline to keep promises and resist temptations, are able to exercise judgment under complex and difficult circumstances, and have the imagination and skill to exercise the symbolic dimensions of the office. These characteristics are notoriously difficult to assess. Furthermore, principals must often judge prospectively before individuals take office. Integrity and judgment, however, as well as competence are embodied in and revealed through habits of decision and learning formed over time and revised in light of experience and deliberation. They reside in the person in a unique and essential way and cannot be reduced to formulaic rationality (Hampshire, 1978b; Steinberger, 1993). The fact that judgment, integrity, and competence cannot be rationalized and are tied to contexts means principals should focus on persons performance in office. Work experience presents the best testing ground where the judgments and quality of character reveal themselves and should be the focus of assessments of suitability for office. The complexity of public office, however, suggests that beyond ministerial jobs and very tightly controlled technical positions, there will be no very clear or easy ways to set a priori boundaries around private areas. For instance, two areas that are clearly private immediately become subject to legitimate scrutiny within a performance focus. First, a persons health can be legitimately examined to ensure competence, safety, and balanced judgment. At the most fundamental level, each human remains one personDobel / PRIVATE LIVES OF PUBLIC OFFICIALS123in his or her body. Humans physiological underpinnings, such as strength, disposition, stamina, and physical or mental health, influence all realms of life (Korsgaard, 1989). Physical or mental impairment can affect judgment and performance and are legitimate grounds for inquiry. Alcohol or drug use can debilitate judgment and performance or make individuals vulnerable to abuse of office. Wilbur Mills, one of the most powerful and effective chairs of the House Ways and Means Committee, drank so excessively that he often did not remember his actions on the House floor, yet he served as chair for years. Senator Edward Kennedy suffered from a drinking problem, yet served as an effective and powerful senator. But the costs of substance abuse creep up over time. Representative Mills ruined his career and ended drunk in a Potomac basin with a stripper named Fanny Fox (Congressional Quarterly, 1992, pp. 86-89). Edward Kennedy crashed off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island, and a young aide, Mary Jo Kopechne, died in the drinking-related accident. His own effectiveness and stature were later diminished by his alcohol-tinged entanglement in rape charges against his nephew (Congressional Quarterly, 1992, pp. 94-96). Second, personal economic relations can be legitimately examined. Most conflict-of-interest laws and disclosure requirements build on three related premises that undermine this private area. First, economic interests in ones area of authority can corrupt judgment; second, these interests can tempt individuals, and office should not be subject to undue temptations on people with heavy responsibility; and third, economic conflict of interests can undermine the appearance of fairness and impartiality and hurt the legitimacy of government. Additionally, these economic interests also can affect performance if linked to family and friends. These concerns permit a natural extension of legitimate scrutiny to these economic entanglements. The actual nature of the information principals may need in these areas will differ according to the nature of official responsibility, but both private areas clearly fall within the legitimate concerns of principals to examine individuals and blur boundaries. An even greater blurring occurs because past performance and public records can have serious limits as guides to actions. Relevance tied to public record depends on consistency of the person over time and comparability of the positions. People, however, change, sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly. They can reach breaking points as the multiple stresses of life press on them. Divorces, new marriages, illnesses, and other events can change them. Many job pressures corrode personal integrity and skill over time (Kipnis, 1976). Individuals can also move from one domain to124ADMINISTRATION & SOCIETY / May 1998anotherstaff to line, legislature to executive, local to state or state to national office, private to public sectorwhere proven skills and success may not transfer. Each change, especially changes where people take on more responsibilities and higher stakes, involves confronting new challenges and pressures that past experience may not capture. For instance, many officials who move from private to the public sector are frustrated by the pace and difficulty of action. They can also become enmeshed in conflict-of-interest problems when they carry private-business practice into public office, such as when CIA Director William Casey refused to give up stock in companies that did business with the CIA (Allison, 1980; Woodward, 1987). In these cases, the aspects of a persons life revealed in private life may provide some valid information that past office failed to reveal. The most careful study of this issue concluded that it is often not possible to tell in advance what private activities may be relevant to our assessments of official performance (Thompson, 1978, p. 141). Private actions may raise reasonable doubts about future performance on the job even if an officials past performance has been faultless (Thompson, 1978, p. 141). The rights of principals to have adequate information on people they delegate, hire, appoint, or elect to public office are strong and legitimate. These rights are bound, however, by strong privacy claims. But the need to discover issues of integrity and competence related to the complex structure of public office does warrant looking into some private areas. The areas of belief, intimacy, religion, and many associations still should have strong boundaries around them because of a prima facie irrelevance to office performance. Past performance, however, may not always be a sufficient guide, and as people seek levels of high responsibility, great discretion, and high symbolic import, other areas may be examined.THE EROSION OF PRIVACY The focus on performance and relevance should create a high threshold for most public officials to protect their privacy. It should be clear, however, that no clear and absolute boundaries can be drawn. This lack of clarity is now aggravated for many public officials, especially elected and appointed, because the institutional incentives of American politics align to undermine the privacy claims. Politicians have always attacked private lives as a way to destroy opponents. As the range of private actions subject to scrutiny widens, the incentives for politicians to use private attack inDobel / PRIVATE LIVES OF PUBLIC OFFICIALS125lieu of political debate increases. Any peccadilloes, real or unproved, become weapons to use against an opponent. Appointed officials, elected officials, and even career officials can be attacked with past scandals even after legitimate ascension to office (Ginsberg & Shefter, 1990). In a classic example, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, when he was a minority Republican member of the House of Representatives, undertook a systematic campaign to allege and uncover relatively minor economic abuses to destroy then Speaker of the House Jim Wright. Earlier, the Democratic Party used unproved allegations about Senator John Towers drinking and womanizing to discredit his nomination as Secretary of Defense, motivating many Republicans to support Gingrich. In turn, Democrats pursued Speaker Gingrich for his own relatively minor economic abuses of office. Gingrich was forced to publicly apologize for his actions and was censured by the House (Barry, 1990, chapters 8, 13, 14, 23-25; Madsen & Shafritz, 1992, pp. 122-123). The culture wars in American politics provide a perfect framework for attacks on private lives. Given the propensity of individuals and voters to identify the salience of certain aspects of private life, such as sexual practices, religious belief, or marital life, with broader political and economic issues, political leaders have a strong incentive to paint others as embodiments of cultural corruption. Issues related to an officials competence are often framed around private rather than public stances. This displaces political consideration away from the policy issues and public integrity (Hunter, 1991). At the same time, many citizens legitimately seek to know and understand the character of public officials, especially candidates, in more personal ways. The breakdown of the party system in the United States means that no real political screening or disciplining mechanisms exist for candidates or high-level executive officials (The Freedom Forum Media Studies Center, 1992, pp. 11-15, 30-33, 79-82). Candidates use party labels as mechanisms to advance their own power, and politics is built around a swirl of personal coteries vying for power (Ginsberg & Shefter, 1990). Citizens get little reliable information about a candidate from party labels, and party loyalty provides little buffer against personal accusations. The quality of the person becomes much more important in the absence of an institutional infrastructure to screen, choose, and control candidates. Public officials present themselves as individuals with impeccable private lives, mentioning their marital status, economic success, or religious beliefs as proof of their integrity. Candidates attempt to influence citizens by relying on consultants who craft careful images and structure126ADMINISTRATION & SOCIETY / May 1998campaigns around that image (Sabato, 1981). The electronic media creates the illusion of intimacy, which persuades citizens that they know a person based on the media image (Grove, 1992; Shickel, 1985). The power of the image enables a public official like Ronald Reagan to inspire confidence, despite the fact individuals may disagree with him on most issues (Postman, 1986). In this world, citizens look to private lives to reveal the quality of the person hidden by images. The rules in American politics have fundamentally changed and are not likely to return to earlier reticence about private lives. Public officials will continue to use private lives as vehicles of attack or as warrants of their worth. Citizens will look to private lives to provide clues about the integrity of individuals. The incentives of the media and press amplify both trends. Ironically, many editors and reporters cite the standards of relevance discussed in this article as their justifications for exploring every aspect of a persons private life. The standards of relevance, however, are generally meaningless for most of the modern media. Alternative media sources and communication on the Internet, fringe political publications, and television and print tabloids ensure that a wide range of morally irrelevant information about private lives enters the public forum. There are very few moments when responsible mainstream journalism can now even judge whether a story should be pursued. The media also engages in feeding frenzies that indiscriminately dig up any aspects of personal lives and throw them to the public to judge (Barker, 1994; Sabato, 1991). In the words of one prominent journalist, the character issue has become an excuse to cover anything we want (CNBC interview with Kurtz, 11 June 22, 1993). In the mid-20th century, the press adhered to informal rules that protected the private lives of public officials. Such informal rules buttressed the public integrity of President Franklin Roosevelt by both underplaying his own physical infirmities and concealing the family discord and unconventional marital arrangement of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt (Goodwin, 1994). On the other hand, they also covered up serious abuses, such as the alcoholism that afflicted Wilbur Mills, Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, or the physical infirmities that debilitated President John Kennedy (Reeves, 1993). The emergence of private scandals that had clearly influenced public performance, as well as the investigative reporting successes of the 1970s, transformed the culture of the press and made it far more skeptical of the private lives of public officials and far less tolerant of private abuses of public trust (Barker, 1994; Sabato, 1991). Given the medias power and resources, the capacity of public officials toDobel / PRIVATE LIVES OF PUBLIC OFFICIALS127exclude or protect domains of privacy has been severely weakened. The dynamics of competition, moreover, drive media coverage to the least common denominator and eliminate any effective screening of relevant information (Alter, 1992; The Freedom Forum Media Studies Center, 1992). The medias obsession with private lives encourages public voyeurism that rebounds back to drive the media itself because such privacy-invading stories garner readers, viewers, and profits. This demand encourages more revelations. The production of scandal has become a profitable staple of media entertainment (Garment, 1991). Any attempts to edit information on the basis of relevance within the media are often neutralized and ineffective due to the elastic nature of standards and dynamics of competition (Barker, 1994). Most disturbing for any privacy claims, the media coverage can create a circular and self-fulfilling dynamic that permits any personal issue to destroy a public official. Any public official must be effective to have a legitimate claim to a position, but effectiveness can be undermined by the revelation of private actions even when the actions have no bearing on judgment. Media-revealed actions irrelevant to governing can dominate a public officials life even if they are unsubstantiated. Officials will spend inordinate amounts of time answering questions and worrying about the issue. Their families, friends, and work life will be invaded and affected by the inquiries. Time, energy, and effort distract from their ability to do the job. The attacks tarnish their office and begin to taint their principal. In fact, a media frenzy ultimately renders them ineffective. Soon the press runs stories about the ineffectiveness. Now the individual has truly become ineffective and has a good reason to resign. This outcome had nothing to do with their actions and everything to do with the results of the 12 media coverage. The consequence of this erosion of privacy is that public life in the United States presents a case study in what happens when the effective claims of privacy are destroyed by politicizing all aspects of personal life. The practical elimination of all distinction between public and private lives leads to a moral-free fire zone. Political conflict vacillates between personal exposure and iconography. No political or rhetorical arena exists for conflict to take place without resorting to personal attacks. When individuals are opposed or attacked, the assaults are not limited to claims about their beliefs, competence, or performance. Political and ethical claims mingle in a politics that aims at the moral demonization of foes, not an indictment of competence or disagreement over policy. This undercuts128ADMINISTRATION & SOCIETY / May 1998civility and a public realm where individuals can disagree, compete, and deliberate without having conflict poison all other personal and social relations. It reflects a noninstitutional politics where people, not parties or institutions, become the focus of judgment and action. The present approach to private lives of public officials inflicts serious harm to civic life. First, many innocent human beings are hurt as they are pulled into public scrutiny over private lives and relations of public officials (Longman, 1990, pp. 414-415, 420-421, 431-432). Second, the quality of life permitted to public officials has declined, and this discourages others from entering public service. Third, the focus on private lives and scandal often detracts from serious issues and trivializes concerns over competence and policy. Fourth, this focus hurts the public service by denying many worthy citizens a chance to serve. This is most telling when attacks on private lives disqualify individuals from public service on the basis of irrelevant attributes, such as sexual orientation or private activities that do not harm others or violate the public trust. The attacks gain strength by legitimizing and encouraging the anger and discomfort of the people who hold moral prejudices (Thompson, 1987, pp. 123-147)). The collapse of public and private makes the excessive scrutiny of private lives especially perilous to women entering public office. The past rituals and rhetoric of public life excluded or questioned womens ability to act in public responsibilities. These norms were reinforced by expectations that limited women to private domains and defined strong limitations on acceptable behavior. Fallen women had few resources to regain status and credibility. Often their very entrance into the public domain defined them as public women, an old term of insult as well as an imputation that they neglect their private obligations. The scrutiny of their private lives can endanger their credibility in many more areas than men face. For instance, no one would think to attack an absent father for devoting time to public office rather than child rearing, but a woman can be challenged as being an absent mother who is harming her children by devoting too much time to public obligations (Matthews, 1992; Ryan, 1990). Consequently, the collapse of private boundaries poses particular vulnerabilities for women in public office. The present political and media system does not have the capacity for self-reform, given the incentives of politics and media. This means that many qualified and proven public officials with strong public performance records will continue to have aspects of their private lives exposed, even when principals have no need for the information. In this case, principals, especially citizens and overseers, must apply the second part of the right toDobel / PRIVATE LIVES OF PUBLIC OFFICIALS129privacy and ignore or discount these revelations as what is due to a person when unnecessary information has come to their attention. Only by exercising this strong prerogative to judge can principals fight against the breakdown of private and public life that characterizes media coverage and political debate.STANDARDS OF JUDGMENT In seeking information on officials or responding to the welter of information from the media and political opponents, principals need a clear approach with reasonable standards. These should address the claims of privacy, account for the structure of public office and legitimate assessment, and provide a usable basis for screening and weighing information about private lives. I propose the following approach based on the presumption that knowledge from private realms is not necessarily relevant to decisions about office unless other reasons intervene. This involves a two-step judgment. First, ask if the information is relevant to assessing performance in office. If not, information should not be sought or should be dismissed. Second, if information is relevant, ask how it should be 13 weighed in judging a public officials worthiness. This approach has the following eight aspects: (a) Begin with public performance; (b) examine health and patterns of economic interest and advice taking; (c) distinguish private actions from abuse of power; (d) keep the circle of scrutiny to the lowest possible number; (e) when the record is weak or inappropriate, look to areas that can illuminate the persons integrity, honesty, and promise keeping; (f) scrutinize public persona for consistency; (g) examine actions that undermine the ability to live up the symbolic dimensions of office; and (h) place the private action in 14 the context of a persons character over time and the alternatives in place. First, focus on the relevant public record and past performance in office. Public actions over time reveal if a person is hardworking, caring, promise keeping, honest, honorable, and a competent achiever. Relevance should push judgments to focus on the requirements of office and past performance in offices. The demand for relevance structures a persons assessment by requiring that information answer the following questions: Does the information relate to the skills needed for the office? Does it demonstrate the judgments needed for the office? Were the skills and judgments in past arenas tied to similar areas? If not, can the experience be analogized to the type of judgments that will have to be made in the new130ADMINISTRATION & SOCIETY / May 1998office? Finally, are the pressures, temptations, scope of authority, and stakes of judgment similar in the other arenas? To the extent that past performance reflects plausibly similar skills, judgments, pressures, and stakes, then performance in office and public record should be the overriding determinant of suitability for office. The concentration on competence and public record should create a high threshold on private information that must pass the following two primary tests: (a) that insufficient information exists from public performance to judge someone, and (b) that the information is clearly relevant to the capacity to carry out an office. These relatively narrow standards are tied to past performance and aimed at relevant judgment, integrity, and competence. They provide a plausible way to direct and judge examinations of the lives of public officials and should protect many personal domains from scrutiny. Unfortunately, a private life can leak into and influence public life in many ways, and to the extent that they do, they can be scrutinized. Private turmoil can leak into official or public life. A hard divorce, a broken relationship, or a sickness or death in the family can distract people from their official commitments. Individuals can become preoccupied and unable to exercise the effort and skill demanded by their position. In 1885, after 10 years of consistent service in the United States Senate, Florida Senator Charles W. Jones missed 2 years of Senate meetings. He had been smitten with love for a wealthy woman and spent all his time in Michigan wooing her (Ross, 1988, pp. 141-143). Sometimes a spiral occurs in which the pressures of office erode the quality of ones private life and undermine a marriage and friendships. Losses in private life, such as divorce or economic setbacks, can rebound back to dangerous changes in public behavior. Private turmoil can cut individuals off from networks of support and undercut the buffers against pressures and temptations. In the end, an official can lose the ability to separate the two realms, and they intermingle with serious consequences (Dobel, 1988). Second, principals have the right to know about health conditions that affect a persons ability to live up to responsibilities. Health and substance abuse problems can disqualify a person from office and are legitimate objects of inquiry. They are also deniable and rectifiable. This is not a costfree claim. The revelation that his vice presidential candidate Senator Thomas Eagleton had once been treated for depression threw Senator George McGoverns 1972 presidential campaign into disarray and forced Eagleton from the ticket. On the other hand, overcoming physical disabilities and addiction can be a source of strength and pride, as Governor AnnDobel / PRIVATE LIVES OF PUBLIC OFFICIALS131Richards of Texas demonstrated. When attacked about past substance abuse problems, Richards admitted problems with alcohol and revealed how she conquered them. Mayor Marion Barry of Washington, DC, also did this when he argued that overcoming his own drug problems and serving jail time represented a metaphor of redemption for the city of Washington (Brown & Ragland, 1994; Sanchez, 1994). Similarly, private economic interests and patterns of advice and friendship that may influence judgment are legitimate subjects for public scrutiny. Privacy claims can protect a persons economic interests because they are so central to making a life for oneself. However, scrutiny into the private economic lives of public officials is warranted because most public corruption involves economic interest issues. Economic interests can also undermine the credibility of ones judgment and the appearance of fairness and can hurt the legitimacy of an institution when officials must act on an issue affecting their private interests. Public officials friends and associates or pattern of seeking advice can provide information about the quality of their judgment. For instance, a police officers association with organized crime or a hate group would be subject to legitimate inquiry (ONeal, 1971). Family and friends matter when they can influence the exercise of power or profit from decisions. Making judgments that affect ones friends or relatives not only unduly strains independent judgment but casts doubt on the appearance of fair judgment. Things have improved considerably since the days when such senators as Daniel Webster received retainers from companies for their services (Douglas, 1992). But friends who give gifts or preference to relatives, such as the company that gave a job to the ex-wife of Senator Robert Packwood just as he was scheduled to vote on an issue important to the company, illustrate how privacy claims break down (Packwood Report, 1995). Similarly, the wife of Senator Mark Hatfield, a senator noted for his integrity, received a $55,000 fee for dubious personal services from a Greek financier whose billion-dollar scheme for an African pipeline came before Hatfields committee (Hatfield Career, 1991). The increasing number of two-career professional couples in public life aggravates the issue. Often one spouse will suffer as she or he must make career adjustments to avoid conflict of interests (Couples, Careers, 1994; The Perils, 1992). This area, as all the others, possesses ambiguity because the connections are unpredictable but real. Suppose, as in the case of President Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, that an executive officer values and respects the advice of a spouse and consults with him or her on all issues. Suppose that this spouse goes to an astrologer for advice that132ADMINISTRATION & SOCIETY / May 1998influences the advice handed on to the executive. This very personal pattern of relations could have significant bearing on public decisions and would be a legitimate focus of scrutiny. Third, the use of official power to satisfy some private desires or to effect private gain is not a private action but a public crime. Any claims of privacy depend on the assurance that protected actions do not violate other legal or moral claims. The misuse of office for financial gain or to extort favors violates the trust of office and conditions on which people are granted power; it disqualifies people from public service and has no privacy protections. The abuse of public office can be most notorious when individuals use the power of office to extort or gratify their own personal desires. They can lose the capacity to separate their private desires from their public actions. Sexual relations, which because of their intimacy enjoy a prima facie privacy protection, can nonetheless provide vivid examples of abuse of public trust. For instance, Representative Daniel B. Crane was correctly censured for having sexual relations with a 16-year-old White House page, as was Representative Gary Studds (Congressional Quarterly, 1992, pp. 3941). Wayne Hayes, a powerful Committee Chair in the House of Representatives, placed Elisabeth Ray, his mistress, on the payroll as a typist despite the fact that she could not type or even answer the phones competently (Congressional Quarterly, 1992, pp. 47-48, 88-89; Ross, 1988, pp. 240-244). These actions violated basic norms of office and deserved exposure and censure. The capacity of private desires and interest to subvert public trust can open some troubling areas of life to public scrutiny and judgment. Public officials should know these distinctions and separate their public and private lives to avoid abuses of power. One of the most consistent traits of individuals who abuse government office for their own aims is the inability to sever private desires from public actions (Dobel, 1984, 1992). The Attorney General of the Reagan Administration, Edwin Meese, was cited by government prosecutors for this inability to separate public office from friendship or private interests when he used his stature to solicit business for friends (F. Z. Nebeker, memorandum, September 12, 1988). Meese demonstrated a moral blindness that could not distinguish private desires and commitments from the obligations of a public official. The corruption of power often subverts judgment and leads individuals to favor personal goals over loyalty to public institutions (Dobel, 1978, 1984). Fourth, to the extent it is legitimate to inquire into private lives, the information should be limited to the smallest possible circle of peopleDobel / PRIVATE LIVES OF PUBLIC OFFICIALS133who oversee and evaluate individuals. Although this is easier for career officials, it places strong obligations on those who approve appointed officials to respect this limit despite political temptations to release information. When private information comes out beyond that circle, it should be discounted as none of our business. Fifth, sometimes no public or performance record exists or is only weak and limited. At others, individuals are moving from one domain to another, where no clear analogy between skills and stakes exist. In these cases, the public record alone is often not strong enough to enable principals to assess a persons worthiness. In these cases, principals can look to other private areas to discover the quality of promise keeping, caring, integrity, strength of will, competence, and judgment. Given the importance of democratic accountability, the temptations and potential abuses of public office, and the moral structure of office, a persons integrity and ability to keep promises matter profoundly. If doubts exist in these areas, it can sometimes open the controversial area of sexual relations and fidelity. In other countries, marital infidelity is sometimes accepted, even as a point of honor, and there seems to be little evidence that marital fidelity correlates with public honor and effectiveness. Yet, when a public record is weak or troubling, individualsfidelity to their spouses could reflect their own basic capacities for keeping promises or for disciplining their desires for public purpose. Infidelity, especially durable and consistent, suggests a capacity for extended deceit to intimates and friends. Constant womanizing, moreover, because males are usually the issue, can manifest not just problems with commitment but with womena disrespect or one-dimensional obsession with them as objects of desire and satisfaction. It suggests a capacity to discount the pain inflicted on spouses and family by betrayal and deceit. People committed to a political order that accords women equal respect and opportunity may be cued to deep and disturbing attitudes toward more than half of humanity. Incessant marital infidelity can alert citizens to the extent that politicians are more driven by the need for power and adulation, because the womanizing and 15 obsessive ambition may reveal the same character source. On the other hand, marriages can wither and die or be hollowed out within public life just as they can everywhere. The death of a marriage is no clear measure of the quality of a person. In some cases, commitment to a dead marriage for the sake of children can manifest a strong moral character, and spouses may develop their own uneasy sexual agreements to134ADMINISTRATION & SOCIETY / May 1998keep the marriage afloat. Other times, marriages can die because public commitment and devotion to office denied married couples time for intimacy and communication. These complexities suggest that despite its potential to illuminate character, infidelity is seldom a clear or helpful indicator of public integrity. Sixth, if people make their private lives an issue in their public images, they open their private lives to judgment in those areas, especially if they had claimed their private lives were proof of their integrity. Similarly, when a person attacks others for transgressions or proposes regulating the private lives of citizens, his or her own adherence to such standards is open to legitimate scrutiny. This enables citizens to judge the public hypocrisy or the authentic capacity for truth telling and the moral consistency of a person. Principals may legitimately seek to discover if an official is genuine and believes what he or she says. If an official is living with another person or having an affair, this may be legitimateif uncomfortableknowledge if he or she projected a different image. In the 1890s, W.C.P. Breckenridge, a Congress member from Kentucky, thrilled the nation with his impassioned defenses of chastity as the foundation, the cornerstone of human society (Ross, 1988, p. 133). A pure home makes pure government, he argued (Ross, 1988, p. 133). These positions created a national constituency for him. In 1884, Madeline Pollard proved that he had seduced her at age 17 and fathered two children by her. The scandal rightly destroyed Breckenridges career (Ross, 1988, pp. 131-134). President Bill Clinton found that his moral leadership on family values rang hollow for many people given his own promiscuous life. In 1980, Robert Bauman, a leading Republican ultraconservative in the House of Representatives, was charged with soliciting sex from a 16-year-old nude male dancer in a gay bar. Bauman, married for 20 years and a father of four, had cosponsored legislation to bar gay men and women from housing and jobs. Not unjustly, Bauman lost his family, job, and career (Congressional Quarterly, 1992, p. 90; Dionne, 1994; Ross, 1988, pp. 266-268). A persons private life can also become relevant by a public decision of the official. When President Clinton appointed Roberta Achtenberg as Assistant Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, the open fact that she was a lesbian made her intimate private life a public issue given the political climate. Achtenberg and President Clinton chose to battle the issue for the very purpose of breaking the public barrier to service imposed by prejudices against open lesbians and gays. They sought to confirm in a public forum that a person could be a competent and effectiveDobel / PRIVATE LIVES OF PUBLIC OFFICIALS135professional no matter his or her sexual orientation and that the private issue of ones sexual orientation should not be central to the decision to hire, elect, and appoint (Helms to Fight, 1993; Senate Confirms, 1993). At the same time, President Bill Clinton made his marriage a central issue in assessments of him by claiming that he and his wife Hillary constituted a team. He argued as part of his appeal that he respected and listened to his wifes advice and gave great weight to it. In making this a direct point of the campaign and granting her significant influence in the formation of his administration and health policy, he made his wife and their relationship a legitimate issue of scrutiny (Fineman & Miller, 1993; Pear, 1993). Seventh, some private actions can subvert an individuals ability to live up to the symbolic dimensions of an office. Many public offices possess a dimension beyond competence or policy commitmentsthey require officials to exercise moral leadership (Rhode, 1988). When individuals represent an institution and its purposes, their actions take on powerful symbolic aspects that contribute to the legitimacy of the institution. Arguments about this can be easy to abuse, especially if generalized to the claim that a public official must represent a set of idealized values that are ideologically correct. Officials, however, should act in a manner that inspires respect for their position and the laws and policies that they represent. In an illustrative case, Appeals Court Justice Douglas Ginsbergs name was withdrawn from nomination for the Supreme Court when it was revealed that he had broken the law and smoked marijuana in his office with students as a law professor at Harvard. Many other public officials escaped censure by revealing they too had smoked marijuana at other times, but they argued that a past action in their youth should not be the grounds to judge their present character. What gave the Ginsberg charges cogency was Ginsbergs very limited history as a judge combined with the habitual and recent nature of his actions. In addition, he did it in a workplace setting with students whom he should be teaching to respect the law. Furthermore, he was nominated by a president who had mounted a national campaign against drug abuse, and as a judge himself, he would have to make judgments about the laws dealing with drug use. None of these charges addressed competence, but focused quite rightly on the cost to the legitimacy of the office and the persons credibility in that office (Ginsberg Withdraws, 1987). Eighth, when private and unneeded information comes to principals attention, principals have special obligations to dismiss or discount the information if possible. In assessing it, they should focus on the integrity136ADMINISTRATION & SOCIETY / May 1998and character of the official. This means that principals should distinguish between an isolated mistake, a personal experiment, a tragedy, and a character flaw. Singular events or mistakes or tragedies matter far less in assessing someone than patterns of actions over time that reveal basic lineaments of character. Citizens need to fit patterns together and discover when public and private actions reinforce each other or reveal discontinuities or when they reflect youth and immaturity that a person has outgrown. In The Laws, Plato exposes would-be rulers to vices so that they have experiences that illuminate what is at stake. Living a boring life is not the same as being a mature, wise, or fine human being. Overcoming failure, personal wreckage, or alcoholism, or rebuilding a marriage or life can demonstrate dimensions of character and strength as well as extend a persons moral imagination. For these reasons, it also makes sense to exercise a statute of limitations on incidents that occurred years ago, even if germane to performance, if they are offset by a long and honorable life lived after the incident. The past should not be a prison for anyone.CONCLUSION Three stories involving the troubling area of sexuality and fidelity demonstrate how these standards can be applied. In 1995, Senator Robert Packwood was accused of sexually importuning female lobbyists and members of his own staff. He used his office to leverage favors and intimidate individuals for favors. These unwanted overtures occurred during a 15-year period. Packwood had served for two decades as a senator with a strong public record, including consistent support for womens rights. After 1 year of hearings that proved the allegations, Packwood chose to resign from the Senate rather than face certain expulsion. He had clearly abused his power and office regardless of his public record. In the 1884 presidential campaign, the Republicans revealed that the Democratic candidate, New York Governor Grover Cleveland, had fathered a child out of wedlock. The uproar over the revelation hurt Cleveland. Ultimately, however, voters correctly concluded that his long and impeccable record as a public executive of the countrys most powerful state, coupled with the fact that the affair had occurred in the far past and that he acknowledged the child and had provided for her support, overrode misgivings about the private scandal. Additionally, the alternative, Republican James Blaine, had serious problems of his own with conflict-of-interest charges. InDobel / PRIVATE LIVES OF PUBLIC OFFICIALS1371987, however, front-running presidential candidate Senator Gary Hart had challenged reporters to follow him after charges of infidelity had been raised against him. Having made the challenge, he continued his affair with Donna Rice. When the affair was exposed, he denied the charges and acted petulant and erratic. The revelations ended Harts campaign and destroyed his support. They did so because people were already concerned about his very thin legislative record and uneven performance in official roles. Hart also sought to move from the legislature to the executive, where he would have considerably more power, responsibilities, and pressures on him. The weak record and higher stakes led people to examine other areas of his personal life, which turned up enough inconsistencies about his strength of character, honesty, and judgment as to cause considerable unease even among supporters. The affair and his handling of it, rather than being overridden by the quality of his public service, reinforced the concerns about the weaknesses of his public service (The Packwood Report, 1995; Ross, 1988, pp. 120-130, 287-288; Sabato, 1991; Wills, 1990, ch. 2). Private scandal, as opposed to abuse of office, can signify great import with someone like Hart and mean little about suitability for office with someone like Grover Cleveland or Franklin Roosevelt. In conclusion, all officials have a strong right to privacy and a prima facie right to be judged on the basis of their competence and performance. There are, however, many legitimate reasons to inquire into private lives of public officials, but much of the information will not be relevant, especially information thrown out by the media and opponents. It should be treated as such in light of the standards suggested. Morally questionable or scandalous actions from private life should always be considered in context of character and personal history. Each private action may or may not illuminate public integrity, and the same action may mean different things for different individuals. Only careful judgments and respect for privacy by principals will enable some restoration of balance in private lives for public officials. The standards suggested here provide guidance about how to frame judgments, but are not a definitive set of discriminations. Finally, when people confront the moral flaws of persons exposed in others private lives, they should beware their own self-righteousness. Some persons may be saints or prophets, but saints and prophets make notoriously bad rulers. We should judge as mortals judging other mortals. The possibility of redemption should exist in political life as well as in private life. We should judge with mercy.138ADMINISTRATION & SOCIETY / May 1998NOTES1. The private lives of officials are mentioned in many studies of public ethics but usually in a cursory fashion. For example, see French (1983), Gortner (1991, pp. 42-50) and Lewis (1991, pp. 53-59). The most systematic and thoughtful assessments have been written by Thompson (1981, pp. 221-247; 1987, pp. 123-127). This article builds on and expands Thompsons basic insights. 2. Cooper (1991, pp. 176-199) discusses the range of affiliations and their impact on public life. Claims of privacy and secrecy can be abused and encourage individuals to act without moral restraint and to escape moral scrutiny and accountability (Zimbardo, 1969). 3. Schoeman (1992) provides an insightful account of the day-to-day role of privacy in social practices that support dignity and humane social relations. 4. Boling (1996) provides an excellent survey and critique of the discussions within feminist scholarship over the role and limits of privacy claims. 5. See Remick (1994) for a study of how Marion Barry, convicted for drug possession while mayor of Washington, DC, and exposed as a constant womanizer, portrayed himself as a redeemed man. He used myths of redemption deeply imbedded in the Christian and Black American community to excuse himself and gain forgiveness and acceptance by the voters. 6. Matthews (1992) provides an enlightening account of the vulnerabilities of women as well as strategies for renegotiating the public and private realms. 7. Cooper (1989) examines the central importance of roles and commitment in public office. Dobel (1990a) extends this analysis. 8. This stance can become a problem if individuals neutralize their consciences, severing all connections within themselves so that they can go along with anything in office in the name of subordinating personal self to public roles. See Sabini and Silver (1982). 9. This is further narrowed by three considerations: First, to whom is the person accountable? Second, what are the legitimate private areas that are relevant to official performance? Third, what are the legitimate means that can be used to answer these questions? This article focuses on the first two questions. Thompson (1987) examines the answer to number three. ONeal (1971) discusses the issue with specific relation to public employees. 10. Rohr (1986) demonstrates the central role promise taking plays in defining the moral obligations of a public official. 11. For a defense of this untrammeled breakdown of public and private distinctions from a major practitioner, see the lead editorial Dark Side of History (1997). 12. The story of Secretary of Labor in the Reagan Administration, Raymond Donovan, demonstrates the ability of media coverage to end a public officials capacity to govern, forcing him to resign even when he was later exculpated of all wrongdoing (Longman Group, 1990, pp. 431-432). 13. Sabato (1991, pp. 216-219) provides an excellent set of standards that members of the media could use to judge the merits of information they obtain about private lives of public officials and decide whether to reveal the information. However, he is also very pessimistic about the capacity of the modern media to implement them except on a sporadic basis. 14. Kurtz (1996) describes the debate over how to cover a past affair by presidential candidate Bob Dole. The affair was discovered and documented but went largely unreported in the media. 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