Privacy Rights for Political Candidates

Privacy rights were practically non-existent for political candidates in 2008. National, regional, and even local candidates for public office knew that bright lights and enquiring minds would be focused on their past deeds, accomplishments, failures and foibles. Press members were sure to probe their stances on the issues, and opponents and private interest groups looked for personal and professional transgressions and evidence of wavering on key issues. Pro-life conservatives could not afford an abortion within their family history.

Presidential candidate John Edwards was hounded and eventually forced into seclusion by tabloids that provided evidence of his extramarital affair with a staffer while his wife battled terminal cancer. Sarah Palin’s wardrobe and family were put under the media microscope. Hillary Clinton’s cackle was ridiculed while her tax returns were demanded. Barack Obama’s mixed family lineage was scrutinized and his “blackness” was questioned. These examples demonstrate that candidates had virtually no right to privacy in the 2008 elections. There is no law or requirement for office that compels a presidential candidate to disclose her tax returns.

But, given heavy pressure from the press and from voters, most recent presidential candidates have voluntarily submitted their returns for public view and scrutiny. According to multiple media sources, only one major presidential candidate since 1984, Bill Clinton in 1992, has refused to release his tax returns. And, after intense pressure from her opponents and the press, Mrs. Clinton grudgingly released her 2000-2006 federal returns in April 2008. In the 2008 election, passport records for all three major presidential contenders were reviewed by State Department personnel without immediately notifying the candidates.

This snafu brought the issue of candidates’ privacy rights up for debate. Originally characterized by State Department officials as harmless and not politically motivated, the matter had to finally be aired and resolved by Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice. In a New York Times article regarding the passport snooping, Mr. Obama said, “One of the things that the American people count on in their interactions with any level of government is that if they have to disclose personal information, that is going to stay personal and stay private” (Cooper, 2008).

Thus, even those who seek the highest office in the United States are at risk of having their privacy violated. Vice President Dick Cheney may have used and expanded executive privilege as a mechanism for retaining privacy. The right of executive privilege is used and reserved by the executive branch of the United States government to insulate private consultations and to resist subpoenas and other interventions by the legislative and judicial branches. This right to executive branch privacy has been upheld by the Supreme Court.

In at least two instances, regarding discussions with the oil company Enron and with investigators probing the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame, Mr. Cheney may have stretched or broken the bounds of legitimately claiming executive privilege. Only the courts could decide, but many of Mr. Bush’s and Mr. Cheney’s detractors vehemently pressed the point. In the Plame case for example, Democratic congressman Henry Waxman protested that “the claim of executive privilege is ludicrous. We are not seeking the communications between the Vice President and the President.

We are seeking access to the communications between the Vice President and FBI investigators” (Congressional Record, 2008). And, in a Time magazine article on the discussions that Mr. Cheney had with Enron, it is argued that “if Congress ultimately decides to press the issue (of executive privilege), Mr. Cheney would be wise to yield” (Amar, 2002).


Amar, A. (2002, February 2). Cheney, Enron and the Constitution. time. com Cooper, H. (2008, March 22). Passport Files of 3 Candidates Were Pried Into. NY Times. .