Candidates vow to be faithful -- not a bad idea

First published in Newsday.

A socially conservative group in Iowa, the Family Leader, has issued a 14-point "vow" it wants presidential candidates to sign. Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann quickly produced her pen, as did former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. But others are hesitating. The pledge has gotten some strange reviews, such as headlines announcing, "It's about slavery!" and "It's about pornography!"

So, reading the actual document was a revelation - it's better now that the absurd slavery reference has been removed. There are still some problematic points, but the first two vows won my wholehearted agreement: "Personal fidelity to my spouse" and "Respect for the marital bonds of others."

We need to start electing people who are ready to go to Washington - or Albany - to pursue the people's business, not their own egocentric meanderings.

Somehow, Americans seem to keep mistaking narcissism for leadership. We see arrogance and call it confidence or belief in one's vision. We fall for the charisma and ability to persuade - but then the dark side of these traits reveals itself in the reckless tweeting of underpants photos or the lining up of interstate hooker dates.

One would think that this country is in enough trouble to occupy the talents and energies of these politicians.

We voters would be wise to look at a candidate's motivation for running for office, as an indicator of whether he - or she - would use the position to render service to people. As I've written before, one clue could be the candidate's gender. Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, says that women tend to run for office because there's a public policy issue they wish to solve, while male candidates, more often, say they've had a long-standing interest in a political career. To my ear, that's a self-centered orientation. Whether that ultimately plays out as funneling campaign money to conceal a mistress from one's dying wife, who can predict? But the better bet is with a candidate who's focused on a cause.

It's time for a call for serious people in public life - and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) is one voice raised. On her new website, OffTheSidelines.org, she urges women to become more involved in politics by hosting a house party, writing a letter to the editor or registering to vote. "The women's movement has stalled," she claims in a 3-minute video. Her goals are pay parity, more women elected to Congress and governors' mansions, and "the same number of women executives as assistants."

Of course, with the "donate" button placed prominently on the senator's web page, should we believe that Gillibrand's passionate appeal is entirely about helping others? No. Donations go to her re-election campaign, not to the broader cause of helping women run for office. But it may be in this case that her personal ambition and her constituents' good dovetail effectively - which is all we can really ask of a politician.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is making that blend work. Riding high after a powerhouse legislative session in which he pushed through a tough new ethics law, Cuomo told an interviewer that one of his election mandates was "to reduce the scandals and embarrassments."

Of course, Albany's embarrassments have often been of a different nature than adultery. Taking bribes, stealing from health care clinics, embezzling Little League funds - New York's lawmakers eye the bottom line. But there's a common theme: We need government to get down to work, more than we have before in our lifetime.

So, let's take a second look at candidates who are willing to swear off bad behavior. They just might have their priorities straight.