The quest for public prominence comes together with the loss of privacy. Elected officials, performers, opinion-shapers and sports stars know this full well. Some revel in being in the spotlight, a few shun it, and others view it with considerable reluctance. But they all are aware of the fact that it comes with the territory. Ask Donald Trump or Benjamin Netanyahu, Linoy Ashram and Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka and Roger Federer, Andrew Cuomo or Merav Michaeli.
In many fields, the road to success comes together with greater public interest or requires large doses of popular recognition. That is why an entire industry has evolved around promoting (and at times protecting) those in the public eye. It is also the reason that the age-old impulse to track the rich and the famous, which for years has cultivated a profitable terrain populated by gossip columnists, paparazzi, and endless trolls, has been perfected in this digital age — replete with Instagram, Twitter, and now TikTok. There is no surprise here. What is different is the immediacy and hence the intensity of the phenomenon.
Those whose ambitions lead them into the public sphere — mostly knowingly, but some unwittingly — realize sooner rather than later that their stature exacts a price in terms of their personal privacy precisely because their position comes with a modicum of professional responsibility. This is especially true for politicians, but does not pass over those in other fields as well. The only way to preserve some balance is through transparency: being candid about one’s intentions and behavior. Transparency, especially in open societies, always comes with accountability — the understanding that by setting expectations one will be judged by the extent to which they are met. The greater the gap between transparency and accountability, the greater the likelihood of losing popular support. Time and again, public figures learn at their peril that trying to hide behind what cannot be concealed is a sure route to derision and often to widespread denunciation. They also come to understand the benefits of honesty and the sympathy it evokes.
For the past few days, Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli has experienced the entire range of possibilities emanating from her inability to navigate this delicate balance. For quite some time, she quite correctly chose to keep her efforts to bring a child into the world from the public. Not only is the topic intimate in the extreme, in this case, it also requires some explanation, as Michaeli has been an avid champion of the right of women to consciously choose not to become mothers. At this early stage, the gap between her public positions and her personal comportment was just beginning to fester.
It developed into a chasm when Michaeli left the country late last week for “a private vacation” in New York. As minister of transportation, such a move was nothing short of unconscionable. She, more than perhaps any other minister, has the obligation to conform with the near prohibition on travel abroad. Explaining that she would, of course, go into compulsory isolation upon her return is simply unacceptable in these circumstances. Michaeli should not have been surprised when she was pounced on by the press, the opposition, disgruntled coalition partners, and the public at large.
Within 36 hours, the pendulum shifted 180 degrees. Merav Michaeli shared a Facebook post proclaiming the arrival through a surrogate of Uri, her joint son with longtime partner Lior Schleien. The announcement was greeted with overwhelming sympathy and an outpouring of good wishes. Even her numerous detractors found themselves, for once, at a loss for words. Michaeli’s honesty has, to a large extent, been rewarded, especially because it was accompanied by her acknowledgment that there is a discrepancy between her ideological stance on the subject of motherhood and her actions, together with assurances that this would be explained fully, soon.
All this could easily have been averted by a bit more candor upon Michaeli’s departure from the country. A simple sentence stating that the reasons for her trip would be forthcoming would have struck an equilibrium between her intimate concerns and her public responsibilities. It is this lack of transparency that exposed her to the extreme consequences of the absence of accountability. Her truly heroic journey suffers as a result.
Many politicians like Michaeli have, sadly, not internalized the message that some high-profile sports leaders — mostly women — have sent in recent months. Naomi Osaka, one of the most fiercely independent people in this world, willingly forfeited her place in the Roland Garros grand slam tournament because she was not willing to take part in the press briefings required by the organizers. She did not duck her contractual duties, but honestly said that she could not fulfill them for personal reasons and was willing to handle the consequences. Her transparency was received by many not only with disappointment, but also as a symbol of personal courage. Further issues with ongoing trepidations have been received with greater understanding. She has carved a place for herself by indicating how she hopes to pursue her professional goals without sacrificing her personal self. She has also gained considerable respect. On that score, she is now being held accountable.
The same holds true for Simona Biles — the wonder woman of world gymnastics for the past few years, or forever. Her inability to perform at the Olympics came together with a sincere sharing of her innermost demons. It was also accompanied by an uplifting understanding of her capacities and obligations. She never gave up — even participating in the final event on the beam (and winning the bronze medal) — while always cheering her teammates throughout. She thus fortified and expanded upon Osaka’s step in very unique ways.
Other examples abound. See, for one, the truly supportive backing given to the stellar performance of openly gay Tom Daley in diving after numerous setbacks. Or examine the ultimately successful campaign of women beach volleyball players to defy the dress code established by sports organizers and decide for themselves what they would wear. All these efforts — and many more — highlight the quest for a place for oneself, while pursuing excellence through bridging the gap between professional demands and daily actions.
Elected officials and civil servants have a lot to learn about matters of transparency and accountability from these seemingly unconnected cases. In many respects, their paths are easier. They are all bound by the letter of the law and by clear legal and normative parameters. Their every move is supervised by formal institutions, the media, civil society and the electorate. And their diversions are noted and broadly scrutinized. They therefore have very little reason to avoid veracity — regardless of their ambitions and short-term gains.
There is, however, one critical difference between them and individual media stars, sports heroes, and other influencers. In their case, not carrying out their responsibilities has a negative impact on a much larger number of people than their cohorts in other areas. That is why they must live up to the strictest standards of transparency and accountability. Should they falter in this task, they will not only suffer publicly; they will never be able to achieve that crucial balance between the personal and the political which allows their work to be both meaningful and effective.