When Diplomacy Leads to Love, and Vice Versa

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By Margaret Carlson

He had secrets. She had a notebook. It was mutual assured seduction -- or, as he put it, love -- at first sight. And most of it's documented in e-mails.

What you think of the affair between diplomat Brett McGurk and journalist Gina Chon depends in part on your view of professional ethics, in part on your political affiliation, and in part on your e-mail habits. And on your sympathy for the human condition. That might have something to do with it, too.

Appointed to serve in Baghdad by George W. Bush, McGurk did his job so well that President Barack Obama nominated him to be U.S. ambassador to Iraq. Chon was a Wall Street Journal reporter with a plum assignment. On Tuesday Chon resigned her job after acknowledging that she violated in-house ethics rules. McGurk is hanging on, despite six Republican senators writing an actual letter today (how old-fashioned!) to Obama asking him to withdraw the nomination. So far Obama is standing by his man.

McGurk, a former Supreme Court clerk, was so besotted that he gathered together an e-mail chronicle of their relationship and sent it to his beloved. They fell into the wrong hands, as e-mails are wont to do, and found their way onto the Web. The rest is the stuff of a juicy Senate confirmation fight.

The outraged Republican senators are saying that McGurk (himself a Republican) "lacks the leadership and management experience" needed for the job. It probably wouldn’t have been proper, in a letter to the president, to quote from e-mails in which "blue balls" and other vivid details of an illicit affair are discussed.

Here's another question: Who among us could withstand public scrutiny of our early stages of falling in love, or into bed? The beginning of a relationship is often accompanied by a period of temporary insanity, and e-mails tend to be less Jane Austen than Penthouse.

That the two eventually married moves some people to give them a break. The triumph of love, et cetera. Sure, she should have disclosed that she was sleeping with a source, and not let him see her stories before they were published, but no real harm was done. McGurk didn't reveal any classified information, and Chon didn't get any transformative scoops. Some things are supposedly more important than a career.

It is exactly this happily-ever-after part that cynics find so troubling. As simply a utilitarian affair, the Chon-McGurk relationship had a James Bond quality to admire. Diplomats and journalists, after all, should be capable of practicing the dark arts of duplicity: This is what is required for world peace and understanding.

Then there's the camp that doesn't get to the icky love part, and concedes that relationships are about more than using people, but is nevertheless struck by the sheer stupidity of it all. Why would anyone ever put anything even the slightest bit provocative into e-mail? Haven't there been enough people ruined when their furtive tapping has proved embarrassing, career-ending or criminal? What makes McGurk and Chon so clueless is that they used their work computers and official e-mail addresses. Have they never heard of the aptly named Hotmail?

McGurk's nomination will be withdrawn soon. Love may conquer a lot, but it doesn't conquer politics. At least Chon and McGurk have each other.

(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow her on Twitter.)


-0- Jun/13/2012 22:51 GMT