Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Letterman's Indiscretion

Tibor R. Machan

Just as with Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, so with Letterman, the problem is that he is the boss, the top banana who wields considerable clout with the rest of those on the team. For their employees to say no to them is obviously somewhat difficult and risky. Never mind the law here, it is a matter of professional ethics. Just as teachers ought not to hit on students, so bosses should not hit on staff. It is taking advantage of one's legitimate power to exploit someone who did not sign up for romance but for work.

Sure, most adults know how to handle it all, with just a bit of integrity and courage. But staff ought not to be faced with a boss who strays from the standard of sticking to the parameters of the job. If it is the big love that comes up in the office, the parties ought to quit the professional relationship, move it outside the shop.

Obviously many people meet their one and only at work. That is to be expected. Better than at some bar, with the dim lights and booze coloring everyone's judgment. Work shows people virtually fully so others can see who they are and if there is appeal, acting on it often makes good sense. Except when it involves taking unfair advantage and the likelihood of intimidation which is quite frequently the case, unfortunately. Insisting that no one at work get involved personally is silly unless the job itself is seriously jeopardized, as it might be where, say, a doctor and nurse or pilot and flight attendant are involved. Even there a romance, even just casual dating, could commence but if the parties want to explore things fully, they will need to move outside the job situation.

What is not realistic is a demand for precise rules, some kind of exact code, about all this. Circumstances vary too much to be codified. But there are general principles by which one can be guided. The main one is that the duties involved in one's work may only very rarely be compromised and if there is even the smallest change they will be, the extracurricular activities must be taken off premises, so to speak.

Of course with Clinton it was gross. Ms. Lewinsky was an intern for heaven's sake, and he the president and commander in chief of the country. The man had a huge problem. And it was revealing how nearly all so called feminists gave him a pass--just goes to show you how much some people's principles manage to be flexible for them. Moreover, intern or not, fooling around with Monica violated the oath Clinton took upon marriage and pretty much discredited him, showed him to be untrustworthy. Which isn't what one would want from one's president or boss, for that matter.

Yes, much of these matters are within the purview of ethics, not of public policy or the law. Yes, there is a difference--when one is guided by ethics, one is supposed to do what is right of one's own free will, not under threat of punishment or sanctions. The right or wrong thing to do must be voluntary. But since these folks, both Bill Clinton and David Letterman, are very public in their different ways, even their private conduct is subject to widespread inspection and evaluation. (Too bad the lawyers get involved so often--it obscures the distinction between private and public malpractice. But malpractice it often is, nonetheless.)

It would be welcome to see these public figures managing their affairs more sensibly, at least discretely. They might then set something of an example for their admirers and viewers instead of becoming a disappointment for them. But it just goes to show you, there is no way to guarantee human decency. Even those granted considerable confidence by the rest of us keep falling down.

It all suggests that the last thing we ought to do is to entrust any of these people with power--doing the wrong thing comes much easier when you have it.

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