Eric Greitens has been gone from the office of governor of Missouri for just over a week now. And there have been lots of analyses done about the politics of what happened and the ins and outs of the various scandals that finally caused him to resign.
But I think it's worth asking a broader moral question that perhaps can shed some light not just on political leadership but on leadership of all kinds, including that found among faith communities. The question is this:
What gives leaders legitimacy and how can they lose it?
First, of course, legitimacy comes with the selection process. In the case of Greitens, he was properly elected and duly inaugurated. The same goes for Donald Trump, even though he lost the national popular vote. Nonetheless, the Electoral College rules are the rules by which the nation plays, which means Trump got to occupy the Oval Office while Hillary Clinton got to go home (where she seems not to stay much).
But there is also a moral legitimacy to consider. This is harder to assess and more debatable, but it's something real nonetheless. When the news broke that Eric Greitens had had a smarmy extra-marital affair in which ugly details were revealed, his moral legitimacy suffered serious damage. When that was coupled with other allegations of wrong-doing and his known disregard for the necessary rules of civil relations with legislators, there was, in the end, no moral ground left for him to occupy.
Many might argue -- and I would be among them -- that President Trump also has pretty much run out of moral ground on which to stand. His inability or unwillingness to speak truthfully about almost any subject has kneecapped him, along with what well may be his traitorous behavior in the effort by Russia to influence our elections.
In the 1970s, we saw not just the political calculus but also the moral calculus that led, finally, to the resignation of Richard M. Nixon as a result of the sinful, deceitful way he handled the Watergate scandal. (Google it, kids.) So we know there can be a tipping point that can push a politician without a moral compass out of power.
That determination is not solely a legal one, not one in which the primary question is whether a politician broke this or that particular law. Rather, it is a question of trust, of morals, ethics. It is the question often asked of Nixon: Would you buy a used car from that man?
There's a persuasive case to be made that with both Greitens and Trump there was enough evidence before the election to know that moral failure was a distinct possibility, as, of course, it also would have been for Hillary Clinton. But we voters struggle with our own moral failings and thus are more likely to be forgiving of such evidence and hopeful that all will be well. We should know by now that such an approach is naive and dangerous.
No, we can't elect sinless people, can't elect saints. But we can pay better attention to the warning signs that a ruler's legitimacy is likely to be fatally compromised once in office. And we can keep our moral standards high enough so that we recognize when that happens.
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CINCINNATI -- While I'm here through the weekend for the annual conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, I won't be adding the usual second item here to the blog each day. Normal blogging will return after I get back to Kansas City in a few days.