Politicians' capacity for embarassment

Aug 15, 2013

There’s an odd story you might have missed from the Upper Peninsula. A member of the Michigan Republican state central committee is facing major felony charges in Wisconsin.

Various press accounts quote police as saying Douglas Sedenquist of Escanaba was arrested five months ago after his wife notified police that he was supposedly stalking her with a high-powered rifle and making suicide threats. His wife left him last year; she said he was physically abusing their daughters.

Police in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where she now lives, arrested Sedenquist after, police say, he repeatedly refused their orders to put down the rifle or get out of his truck. Instead, he asked them to let him shoot himself. Eventually they were able to arrest him, and now he faces a variety of charges.

I have gone into this in some detail because I haven‘t yet told you the weirdest part about all this. Nobody, so far as I know, is demanding that he step down from his party leadership roles. Sedenquist, by the way, is also vice-chair of the Delta County GOP.

Years ago, the person charged would have resigned immediately or been removed by his fellow Republicans from any political positions he held. They would have wanted to save the party embarrassment. That’s how things worked for a long time. President Lyndon Johnson’s top aide had to resign after he was arrested in a men’s room on what were then primly called “morals charges.”

But the embarrassment rule apparently doesn’t apply anymore in either party. The unfortunately named Anthony Weiner, a Democrat, is continuing to run for mayor of New York after it has been revealed that he had taken pictures of his body parts and sent them to women he does not know. Worse, he’s done this before. He did resign from Congress two years ago, for similar behavior, but evidently thinks the voters will still elect him mayor.

What you might conclude from all this is that the chief qualification for political success today may be having no capacity for embarrassment. This may have started with Bill Clinton. Early on, when the allegations about Monica Lewinsky were clearly true, I thought he ought to resign to save the nation two years of drawn-out agony, after which I thought he would be forced to quit anyway. I was right about the agony, but dead wrong about his being forced out.

Clinton survived, perhaps inspired by a congressman who refused to quit after it was revealed that he was living with a male prostitute and using his authority to fix the man’s parking tickets.

What bothers me about all this is that it helps foster cynicism about politics, government and people in public service.

Everybody makes mistakes and nobody is ethically perfect, but there ought to be some boundaries. Threatening someone with a gun should be over the top. So should promoting hatred of minorities, which both Sedenquist and Republican National Committeeman Dave Agema have done in attacks on gay people on the internet.

What baffles me most of all in the last two cases is why Michigan Republicans evidently feel it is acceptable to have these two men as official representatives of their party.

You would think voters might want someone to explain.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee the University of Michigan.