Tennessee found itself in the national spotlight last week.
But not for a good reason.
Newspapers and websites across the country — ranging from the Washington Post to thehollywoodgossip.com — were abuzz Wednesday with news that U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, a Jasper Republican who describes himself as pro-life, pressured his mistress to have an abortion.
Making matters worse is that DesJarlais is a physician and the woman at one time was his patient.
A reader asked me Thursday why the Times Free Press chose to run the story stripped across the front page and whether that was fair given that voters decide in less than five weeks whether DesJarlais will go back to Washington for a second term.
My emphatic answer: Yes.
Yes. Yes. Yes.
The freshman congressman’s website makes this statement about abortion: “All life should be cherished and protected. We are pro-life.”
That’s called talking out of both sides of your mouth.
Anytime a congressman running for reelection on a pro-life platform asks a woman he had an adulterous affair with to have an abortion, it’s a story. Even if the election was a year away, it’d be a story.
The fact is, voters have a right to know whether the politicians they elect are acting with integrity. Or if they’re hypocritical. Or if they mean what they say on the campaign trail or are just pandering to the political will of their district.
If a politician who presented himself as pro-life does something antithetical, voters have a right to know.
DesJarlais represents the Fourth Congressional District, which includes Bledsoe, Sequatchie, Grundy and Marion counties in Southeast Tennessee, and meanders west and north.
Those counties, tucked in the middle of the Bible Belt, are very conservative. It’s a district where a pro-life, family values candidate resonates with voters.
DesJarlais has cultivated that image.
His campaign website paints him as a hardworking, up-from-the-bootstraps, rural son who is on a mission to “preserve our values and principles.” His congressional website says he ran for office to bring “hometown, conservative values to Congress.”
It’s unknown whether — or how badly — the revelation will hurt him when voters cast ballots on Nov. 6.
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have been made as part of his divorce proceedings a dozen years ago, and the DesJarlais campaign wrote it off in a statement as a “desperate personal attack” and “gutter politics.”
Even the day the story broke, his campaign staff were touting him as pro-life.
“Since the congressman’s opponents cannot attack him on his independent, conservative and pro-life record in Congress, they have once again resorted to pure character assassination,” the campaign stated.
DesJarlais certainly isn’t the first politician whose career has been shaken by choices he made in his private life.
Remember Bill Clinton and Gary Hart? Not to mention the lesser-known politicians who became household names after scandalous behavior — think former U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner (tweeting lewd photos of himself) and former U.S. Sen. Larry Craig (sex-sting arrest in a Minneapolis airport bathroom).
The media sometimes gets shelled when a story like this breaks, especially so close to an election. Did someone who doesn’t like the congressman leak it? Probably.
But the truth is, a lot of stories about elected officials are leaked by opponents or by those who simply don’t like the politician.
Regardless of where the story came from, if we recognize it as news we need to get on it.
In this case, DesJarlais’ private actions are 180 degrees from what he promotes in his public image.
And, yes, that’s news.