I should start this post with an explanation of an underlying principle I hold. The principle is thus: Extra-marital affairs are not inherently private matters. What I mean by that is that the privacy (ie secrecy) of the relationship is not guaranteed, and not to be held inviolate. In other words, don't be surprised if others find out and make opinions on it. This is because an affair is an antagonist to trust, and trust is a public concept. It cannot be meaningfully applied to individuals.
What sparked this post was this article, or rather the bullets regarding John Prescott (Charles Clarke is another kettle of fish which I may or may not elaborate on at another time). For those unfamiliar with the background, John Prescott is the Deputy Prime Minister in the UK government, and he recently owned up to having an affair with his secretary. In particular the article gives, as a reason why Prescott should not resign:
John F Kennedy, H H Asquith, David Lloyd George and Bill Clinton were fine politicians who cheated on their wives. Stalin stayed faithful, but was a monster.
I have a few problems with this statement:
1) While I can't speak for Kennedy, Asquith and George, I doubt the definition of Clinton as a "fine politician". Unless by "fine politician" you mean "no more likely to lie, cheat and pay their way into power and then do nothing of worth when there than the next politician". That could just be my cynicism speaking…
2) It's a strawman argument. The likes of Clinton just don't compare with Stalin. Try Castro for a slightly better comparison. Definitely leave Prescott out of it, even he's no heavyweight here (pun absolutely intended!)
3) The implication of course is that an affair is not a marker of an unworthy minister. I think that is inaccurate. It would be more accurate to say that it is not an absolute marker of unworthiness for office. At the same time however, it is not something to be summarily ignored. This is an issue of character and politics these days is just as much about character as about policy and competence.
Prescott's affair may not, in itself be enough cause for resignation, but it is actually damaging. It is not insignificant and will affect his political career, and rightly so, because it calls into question both his trustworthiness and his priorities.