The controversy surrounding Yvan Perrin’s candidacy to be Conseil d’Etat in Neuchatel has touched a profound taboo in Switzerland, the separation between the private and public. Already during the DSK scandal in the New York hotel, questions were raised about how much the public should know about a politician’s private life. Now with the revelation of reports on Perrin’s December 19th hospitalization, once again questions are being raised about the right to privacy of the individual and the right of the public to know about politicians’ private lives.
Shortly after George McGovern was selected to be the Democratic Party presidential candidate against Richard Nixon in 1972, he had to choose a running mate. His advisors interviewed an ambitious and competent Senator from Missouri, Tom Eagleton. In the heat of the moment - selections are usually made during the Convention with no thorough background check - an aid to McGovern asked Eagleton, “Are there any skeletons in the closet?” Eagleton famously answered no. (The precipitous way the Vice-Presidential candidates are selected could be used as an excuse for John McCain’s hurried selection of Sarah Palin in 2008.)
Soon after, revelations began to come out in the press that Eagleton had had a history of exhaustion/depression episodes, that he had been hospitalized several times, and that he had received electric shocks. In fact, Eagleton had lied to McGovern, and knew, as his doctors confirmed, that he was unfit to be one heartbeat away from being President of the United States. Eighteen days later, with irreparable damage done to the McGovern campaign, Thomas Eagleton resigned as McGovern’s running mate. Although no cause and effect can be definitely established, Nixon went on to win the popular vote by 18 million, the largest in U.S. history, and all the electoral votes except in Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.
In Switzerland, the barrier between the private and the public is sacred. We very rarely see candidates showing off their wives and children during campaigns. As a matter of fact, very little is known about candidates’ private lives during the election process. On the other hand, pictures of the Romney and Obama families were all over the press during the campaigns. Michelle Obama was a huge positive factor; the Obama and Romney children were frequently on stage. During Obama’s second swearing in, cameras focused as much on his two daughters as on Supreme Court Judge Roberts. Americans want to know; no Mitterrand dual lives in Washington.
There are many unanswered questions in the Perrin case, among them medical secrecy. But the question of the relationship between the private and public in Switzerland will not go away.