Avoid presidential 'gotcha' games

The clamor for personal information has potentially damaging consequences


Today, USA Today's editorial board argued that candidates for the White House should disclose almost every bit of information about themselves. Reason Editor-in-Chief Matt Welch argued the opposing view.

News flash: John McCain is an old man who has survived severe war injuries and multiple bouts of melanoma. Bill Clinton wanders the globe raising money for his $360 million foundation and stumping for his wife, Hillary. Barack Obama writes best-selling books and looks smashing with a cigarette dangling from his lips. All three are millionaires.

So why are we in such a frenzy to make them disclose what we already know?

In this era of the Imperial Presidency, so much attention is lavished onto presidential candidates that the focus has strayed from "What do we need to know?" to "What are they hiding?" The former is a matter of citizen self-defense; the latter is a game of gotcha—and one with potentially damaging consequences for the rest of us.

By law, White House contenders are already required to disclose their sources of income. By practice—as a result of public pressure, not a government mandate—all but one major-party nominee since 1984 has released more-detailed income tax returns as well. (In 1992, Democratic nominee Bill Clinton did not.) So far this cycle, only Obama has complied.

What's more significant to the public is a vow by Obama that, if he becomes president, he'll make all federal expenditures searchable on a public database, such as Google.

Want Clinton to come clean? Ask not for her income tax returns but for her husband to allow prompt release of his presidential records. In 2001, President Bush issued an executive order giving living ex-presidents the right to block disclosure of their records long after a 12-year waiting period granted by a 1978 1aw.

Obsessed with McCain's medical records? You should care more about what happened the last time he converted calls for "transparency" into federal law; suddenly, Americans could no longer donate even $200 anonymously to a federal candidate and were faced with heinous restrictions on paying for political ads.

We live in an intrusive age of warrantless wiretaps, feds rifling through your mail and politicians too eager to dictate what you do inside your four walls. What few remaining governmental no-fly zones exist are worth protecting, even if it means shielding the likes of Hillary Clinton and John McCain.

Matt Welch is editor in chief of the libertarian magazine
Reason and author of McCain: The Myth of a Maverick