Part of our fascination with celebrities is that we get to watch their personae fall apart: this week alone John Ensign and Dominique Strauss-Kahn. The question these histories raise, for me, is not just that these men sent us signals about their values that were incongruent with their behavior. Cheating isn't admirable, but it makes sense. What is striking is how reckless these men were.
Consider Eliot Spitzer: how could a US Attorney imagine that he could regularly transfer thousands of dollars in his own name to pay for prostitutes? This isn't hypocrisy, it's insanity. Just like attempting to rape a hotel maid.
Consider Newt Gingrich. Jacob Weisberg has a hilarious post about notes Gingrich wrote to himself, found among the evidence collected by the House Select Committee on Ethics.
Item No. 1 on his list of things to do for June 30, 1993, was to "articulate the vision of civilizing humanity and recivilizing all Americans." That task completed, he intended to "define, plan and begin to organize the movement for civilization and the effort to transform the welfare state into an opportunity society to help people achieve productivity, responsibility and safety so they can achieve prosperity and freedom so they can pursue happiness."
It's funny because it is grandiose. But this is not Newt lying about himself to decieve us or his wife. No one else was meant to read this: This is how he understands himself. Of course, this visionary idealist was also a serial adulterer and was convicted by the House for ethics violations.
Now, you may look at these cases and be amazed that such scoundrels can hold high office. Power corrupts, etc.
But I think these mean are showing us that no one has a coherent self; that is, no one's behavior and thought makes any consistent sense. I'm not saying we all behave as badly or recklessly as these gentlemen. I'm saying that we do not have within us little capsules of rationality and virtue (or lack thereof) -- that is, selves -- that explain who we are. The only thing inside us is the chaos of experience. I'm not being cynical or nihilistic. We can live moral lives this way: see the Buddhists, David Hume, and Derek Parfit. And I'd like to thank Newt Gingrich, for illuminating the path.