The principle, as elucidated by British writer, Philip Hensher, is this:
There is, in fact, a much more appropriate political principle to be applied, and one which seems to have been forgotten … The principle, an ancient one, is this:
“Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion.”
In the normal course of affairs, a man is entitled to a presumption of innocence; if a politician commits a criminal act, he does not lose that right. But what ought to be plain is that if extensive evidence of wrongdoing surfaces, the politician should resign immediately. To hang on, insisting on the presumption of innocence, can only damage the government. I can’t be alone in finding the sight of politicians saying that their right to keep their job until found guilty is a human right distinctly nauseating.
To which Hensher adds:
Any administration neglects questions of propriety at its peril. (The Independent (London), Mar 23, 2001)
The writer was referring to a scandal of Roman government that he was applying to a scandal of “Pre-911” British government; I’m applying it to “Post-911” American government—which ought to convince you that the principle has been, if not a wise one, certainly a practical one—if there’s a difference.
The actual story isn’t so clear-cut* (they never are), but the principle has survived because it explains a truth of politics: the IMPRESSION of scandal is enough to paralyze a government.
[* It’s an interesting story of Roman manners and mores, which begins:
“Each year the Vestal Virgins, together with a select group of patrician ladies, conducted a secret rite to the Bona Dea …”]
It’s certainly what is happening now. Scandal is a daily event. This week it’s an escort service/hooker scandal. (I know something about these things, and trust me, it’s about prostitution, no matter what the “legal” niceties and loopholes.)
Also on the opposite end of the spectrum from Vestal Virgins, Paul Wolfowitz, who moved from being an architect of the Iraq war at the Pentagon to president of the World Bank, where he wangled improper promotions and pay raises for his girlfriend.
He says he’s going to “fight” to keep his job.
Is this not Caesar’s Wife?
The Attorney General of the United States of America, Alberto Gonzales— our “Chief Law Enforcement Officer”—is going to hang on until he can no longer “be effective.”
When U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales testified before Congress this week, a man in the audience held up a legal pad keeping count of every time the nation’s top lawyer said he did not recall something. By day’s end, Gonzales’ memory had failed more than 70 times. (MARY FLOOD, Houston Chronicle, April 20, 2007)
Is this not Caesar’s Wife?
Er … actually, it is. The 2006 election proved the wisdom of that ancient prescription: the public, sick of scandal, overturned the government in convincing fashion. “Throw the bums out!” quoth the public.
Without any pundit, seemingly, ever referring to Caesar’s Wife, many innocent Republican legislators (if that’s not actually an oxymoron) were tried and convicted in the court of the ballot box, and their terms executed.
The presumption, of guilt with PUBLIC officials is the opposite of the private presumption, which is: innocent until proven guilty.
Of course, given that Bush has publicly admitted massive felonious wiretapping, etc. etc. etc. actual impropriety doesn’t seem to be an impediment here. So we have the clash of two different Western traditions: the tradition of public accountability and the honor of public service, and the tradition of grabbing everything that can be seen (so popular among nearly all three-year-old humans).
What Caesar’s wife had to say on the matter is not recorded.