To Run for President, Candidates Need to Clean Own Closets

A presidential campaign brings out details about every candidate's background that no other personal or professional experience can dredge up.

That is a reality that is in theory known to the more than two dozen candidates who are already seeking to move into the White House in January 2009.

Bill Clinton had been through two decades of the rough and tumble of Arkansas politics, and yet his business dealings, Vietnam-era draft record and personal life were never dissected and filleted to the extent they were when he ran for president in 1992.

The same with John Kerry in Massachusetts and George W. Bush in Texas -- two other states famous for their political combat. Even as an incumbent seeking re-election in 2004, Bush was not spared the special scrutiny that the quadrennial national contest brings, as new details about his own military record from Vietnam were brought to the surface.

It is the stakes of presidential politics -- along with the national focus and resources poured into scouring any serious candidate's background -- that produces the kind of -- usually embarrassing -- personal details that can make or break a candidacy.

Sometimes, these revelations are about what political professionals call "votes and quotes" -- legislative votes cast and statements made -- that are the part of almost every candidate's professional background.

But just as often, they are related to a candidate's personal life, broadly defined. And in the wide-open political and media environment in which America's presidential campaigns are now conducted, as a matter of reality (if not decorum) nothing seems off limits as too personal.

In the age of Lexis-Nexis, Google and digital video, much of this material is found by candidates' political opponents and slipped quietly to the media. And organizations at the bottom of the media food chain boldly go -- without the encumbrances of traditional news standards -- "where the stink is," as the Internet gossip Matt Drudge of once said about himself.

The awareness of the central role the revelation of personal details can play in defining a candidate's public image almost certainly was the guiding force in causing potential Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich to admit to a prominent conservative radio talk show host this week that he had an extramarital affair with a congressional staffer at the very time that he was leading efforts to impeach Bill Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky matter. And it also seems to have prompted Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., to recently pay some unsettled parking tickets from his law school days.

Those early efforts at closet cleaning, though, only serve to remind everyone -- including the candidates -- that they won't be the only ones rooting around in their pasts in an effort to influence the future.