To death and taxes can be added another certainty: the nexus of power, politics and sex.
Over the last week, the head of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, sat in jail for allegedly sexually assaulting a maid in a New York hotel; the former governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, acknowledged fathering a child with a former member of his household staff.
It seems there never is a time in America when politicians’ sexual trespasses aren’t in focus. Strauss-Kahn -- who is charged with attempted rape -- may be in a class of his own, and his case is illustrative of nothing. If the charges are true, he either is a criminal or a thug.
Still, the transgressions of people in public life offer a fascinating and evolving saga. Many more examples come to light today, with a more aggressive and diffuse media.
Over the last five years, sexual scandals have forced the resignation of four members of the House of Representatives and ruined the careers of a former vice-presidential nominee and presidential candidate, two governors of New York and two U.S. senators, and made a joke of a third. Other examples abound on the state and local levels.
There’s no reliable data on whether political figures are more prone to sexual indiscretions, though there seems to be a high probability that those in powerful positions, political or otherwise, are. Frank Farley, a psychologist at Temple University in Philadelphia, has a label for this trait, saying many politicos suffer from “Type T personalities,” as in “thrill-seeking.” He says a common feature of many public and political figures is “risk-taking” that lends itself to personal carelessness.
Even a cursory look at the record suggests that while Americans aren’t as permissive as Europeans, they are more tolerant than they were a generation or two ago. Divorce used to be tantamount to a disqualifier for higher office; in 1968, it proved fatal to Nelson Rockefeller’s attempt to win the Republican presidential nomination. By 1980, with Ronald Reagan’s election, it became irrelevant.
Outside of San Francisco, few gays or lesbians dared come out of the closet. Barney Frank, the Democratic congressman from Massachusetts, had been in public life for almost two decades before he revealed his sexual orientation in 1987. Today, there are four openly gay or lesbian members of Congress and many more in offices across the country.
Hypocrisy, Criminal Acts
Despite the greater media spotlight on personal indiscretions, the issue seems to really burn only when it’s flagrant and contemporary, or involves hypocrisy or a criminal act.
“People recognize politicians are flawed, and voters often like nothing better than to forgive you for your trespasses,” says Tom Fiedler, dean of Boston University’s School of Communications and a onetime reporter who uncovered former Colorado Senator Gary Hart’s infidelities almost a quarter-century ago, one of the first major national stories about a politician’s personal life. “What voters will not forgive is hypocrisy.”
Thus, former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer had to resign in disgrace after his dealings with prostitutes were exposed. In his earlier career as a prosecutor, he had crusaded against illicit activities.
Today, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign is weighed down by his divorces and adulterous affairs, not just because of the seamy circumstances but because he is a self-styled values warrior.
By contrast, in the 2000 Republican presidential primary and 2008 general election, voters were unfazed by the acknowledgement by Senator John McCain of Arizona that he had been unfaithful during his first marriage. In 1992, few if any Americans thought Bill Clinton was a puritan when they elected him president. There were more important issues.
When the first revelations of Clinton’s dalliances with a White House intern were disclosed, most Americans were turned off by the particulars. When Republicans tried to make this lapse a capital offense through an impeachment, the tide shifted dramatically. Clinton left office a popular president.
For much of contemporary U.S. politics the media practiced a “west of the Potomac” standard, meaning a politician’s private life was off limits. That changed with the Hart case and the initial Clinton revelations.
This trend accelerated with the proliferation of cable news, blogs and other sources of news. Even mere rumors of personal transgressions now are circulated.
Forced to Resign
That echo chamber turns lethal in cases like that of Nevada’s disgraced former Republican senator, John Ensign, a self-styled moralistic, religious conservative, who had an affair with a staff member and then tried to buy the silence of the woman and her husband, who happened to be the senator’s deputy chief of staff. If Ensign hadn’t resigned from the Senate this month he probably would have been expelled; he potentially still faces criminal charges.
Secular politicians also get caught in acts of blatant duplicity. John Edwards, the 2004 Democratic vice-presidential candidate, posed as a sympathetic and supportive husband to his cancer-stricken wife, even as he was having an affair with a campaign worker that resulted in a child.
The hypocrisy trap, however, most affects politicians of the religious right. They often condemn the morals of others, wrapping themselves in righteousness. When caught, the public reaction usually is harsh. (An inexplicable exception was the Louisiana Republican Senator David Vitter, who after being caught frequenting a house of prostitution was re-elected easily last year.)
Obama and Trump
Nevertheless, some self-styled religious leaders of this movement pay more attention to politics than to faith. A glaring recent example: Reverend Franklin Graham, son of the fabled evangelist Billy Graham, who in a television interview on ABC’s “This Week,” praised Donald Trump while questioning whether President Barack Obama is a Christian.
Never mind that Trump is a thrice-married casino kingpin, usually the kind of stuff that draws the opprobrium of conservative clergy; Obama, whatever his politics, is a devoted father and husband. Isn’t that the kind of behavior the Franklin Grahams are supposed to admire?
(Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)