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The Ethics of Outing 

by Robert Herold & r & Our very own tacky civic miniseries continues, now into its 10th (or is it 11th?) week. In case you missed last week's New York Times Sunday Magazine, our mayor was featured in Randy Cohen's The Ethicist column, headlined "Official Outings." State Sen. Ken Jacobsen of Seattle wrote in inquiring about the ethics of "outing" colleagues. Should an elected official's private life be properly considered part of the public record? Jacobsen wrote that he long has been thinking about this dilemma, more so because of the "Jim West episode."


In responding to Jacobsen's query, Cohen, in this brief column that wanders about more than one would think possible, uses the West situation to illustrate some broader, if, unfortunately, undeveloped points. About the central question, Cohen opines that private life should remain so "unless ... relevant to a public position freely taken." (Whatever that means.)


So West is off the hook?


Well, no, not exactly.


Cohen goes on to include in his category of acceptable outings those elected officials whose public positions run contrary to positions that can be implied from private life -- say, "a gay state senator who opposed gay civil rights."


He means you, Jim.


West somewhat recovers when Cohen makes a brief, if weak, case for hypocrisy, "or at least its irrelevance." It could be argued, Cohen suggests, that policy proposals (or official public action of any sort) "should stand on their own merits" not on the "advocate's behavior."


Exactly the West line of apology; Cohen is using what I call the Popeye Defense: "I yam who I yam who I yam -- but only in private."


Still, says, Cohen, even the Popeye Defense doesn't justify being untruthful. Did Jim West really show favoritism in the hoped-for chance of sex with a teenager? If he did -- if that can be proved -- then the Popeye Defense gets tossed.





Cohen's "one last thought" bears repeating: "Self-interest is noteworthy in public debate. But it is hypocrisy that more often inspires the urge to out; it is denying others the right to what we ourselves do that provokes disdain."


This ties directly into West's sanctimonious treatment a few years back of former Gov. Mike Lowry, whose "offense" amounted only to alleged harassment in the work place -- certainly a long way from West's excesses.


Boiled down, Cohen's observations lead back to the adage: What goes around comes around. And we know that West, over his many years of public life, has gone around a lot, often toting with him a whole lot of controversial, hypocritical and expedient baggage -- stuff that now may well be coming around in the form of him being dropped off out in the political wilderness. So far as I can tell, not one of his erstwhile political allies -- except for maybe Councilman Brad Stark -- has come to West's defense. Neither has the Republican Party West once dominated. Nor the business community that worked so hard to secure his many elections. Nor the social conservatives out in the suburbs whose vote could always be counted on. Nor, most certainly, the Spokesman-Review, which never failed to endorse him.





Despite West's continued claims of support, he stands alone. Perhaps finally coming to accept the obvious, recently he has turned to a secondary line of assertion in his attempt to buy time. The city is not in crisis, he tells us. He is right on this point only if we set the crisis bar somewhere up in the political stratosphere. Yes, the police are out on the streets; the garbage is being picked up; the City Council continues to meet; and the city staff remains fully directed (not so much by West but by, for obvious reasons, our ex-officio mayor, Jack Lynch). But while Lynch and Mike Connelly and Gavin Cooley, along with Chief Roger Bragdon and Chief Bobby Williams, can plug along administratively, not one of them can provide the political leadership the public wanted when the strong mayor form of government was voted up.


Alas, the city has lost its political leadership.


West provided such leadership when he came to office. We have our streets being fixed largely due to West's political leadership. The River Park Square fiasco, while not settled to anyone's satisfaction, has been settled. We have pulled off some badly needed annexation. He managed to cut the budget without alienating the unions -- something a political amateur such as John Powers simply couldn't manage. And most important, West retained the cadre of very accomplished administrators, including Lynch, hired by former Mayor John Powers, and gave them support.


But the ethics of his "outing" aside, by revealing a lifestyle that the vast majority of the public regards to be, at best, unbecoming a mayor, and, at worst, illegal, all the political capital that West brought into office and watched grow during his first year is gone.


Nor can it be doing the city any good to have become the "Amazingly Ridiculous Cities" poster child. I can think of more attractive reasons to be featured in the New York Times Sunday Magazine.
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