“Can Public Men Have Private Lives?” So asked the Princeton historian Eric F. Goldman in a 1963 New York Times Magazine article that used the furor over New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s divorce and marriage to a younger woman—a very big deal in those days—to ruminate on the news media’s interest in politicians’ personal lives.
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Although the details of the scandal now seem quaint—it’s inconceivable that a presidential bid today would implode because of a divorce—the themes of Goldman’s nearly 50-year-old essay are uncannily up to date. In it, he fretted over the failure to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant character flaws. He worried about the ease with which we scapegoat leaders for their human shortcomings. And he spotlighted the tension between preserving a measure of privacy even for political big shots and upholding the public’s right to an honest appraisal of their behavior.
That tension has again been in evidence lately, during a season of titillating page-one stories: Congressman Anthony Weiner of New York was forced to resign after sending salacious texts and lewd pictures to various online pen pals; former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger admitted to fathering a child with his housekeeper; Senator John Ensign of Nevada resigned after paying hush money to conceal an affair with a staffer; former presidential candidate John Edwards pleaded not guilty to violating campaign-finance laws in covering up his own affair and love child; Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the International Monetary Fund chief and likely candidate for the French presidency, was charged with sexually assaulting a maid in his hotel room and all but convicted in the media, only to have the case get bogged down when more details became known; and David Wu, another congressman, quit the House after an 18-year-old woman accused him of making unwanted sexual advances. This wave of scandals followed on the heels of more than a dozen other sex flaps—some proven and deeply damning, some lacking altogether in real evidence—implicating the politicians Larry Craig, Mark Foley, Vito Fossella, Al Gore, Nikki Haley, Christopher Lee, Eric Massa, John McCain, Jim McGreevey, David Paterson, Mark Sanford, Mark Souder, Eliot Spitzer, and David Vitter.
Though these scandals differed widely in their details and gravity, common to all of them was a swirling confusion about what the media’s standards should be for reporting—and the public’s grounds for punishing—a politician’s sexual misbehavior. Arguably the worst groping of the year was committed not by any boorish pol but by the umpteen commentators grasping for reasons these incidents should be covered. Though the press insists that the public has a right to know about behavior that may be relevant to a politician’s character, it often seems to serve up these stories simply because they are too delicious to ignore.
At a time when the Internet, mobile devices, and other technological advances are shrinking the zone of privacy for everyone, and when a zero-tolerance morality coexists uneasily with a sex-saturated culture, it’s worth reviewing the shifting attitudes that journalists have taken toward sex scandals throughout American history. In some periods, exposure has seemed to be a service of the utmost urgency; in others, a gross violation of all that is humane. Indeed, one reason it’s so hard to pin down criteria for what constitutes punishable sexual impropriety is that our standards are in constant flux. That fluidity should induce some humility on the part of would-be media scolds, though it rarely does.
The sex-related controversies that hit the newspapers and Web sites today are surely unprecedented in sheer number and in the level of intimate detail routinely disclosed. But the move toward greater exposure hasn’t been a straight-line march. For many decades, the Gilded Age marked the historical high (or low) point of sexual revelation. In the late 19th century, before the advent of New York Times–style objective journalism, a boisterous, unscrupulous press reveled in bawdy gossip. As Gail Collins notes in her book Scorpion Tongues, in 1881 The Albany Argus recounted the hotel-room tryst of one New York senator, Thomas Platt—and his political enemies’ rental of the adjacent room so they could eavesdrop on his philandering. Meanwhile, the state’s other senator, Roscoe Conkling, had seen his own affair—with the wife of a former governor of Rhode Island—splashed across the front page of The Times. (Admittedly, the affair made the paper only after the ex-governor threatened to shoot Conkling in a Narragansett clam joint.) In 1884, editorialists famously taunted presidential candidate Grover Cleveland about having sired a child with the unmarried Maria Halpin. The intrusions did not abate after his election, as Cleveland discovered with the frenetic coverage of his marriage in 1886 to Frances Folsom, the 21-year-old daughter of a late friend, for whom he had once bought a baby carriage.
Cleveland and other politicians objected to such journalistic encroachments, but they weren’t merely being self-interested. As Rochelle Gurstein notes in The Repeal of Reticence, intellectuals such as E. L. Godkin and Henry James also recoiled from the rude newspapering of the Gilded Age, and some began to speak about a “right to privacy.” The most famous call came in 1890 from the future Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis and his law partner, Samuel Warren, who, while accepting the need to look into a man’s “fitness for public office,” urged the creation of legal safeguards against journalistic invasiveness. “Instantaneous photographs and newspaper enterprise have invaded the sacred precincts of private and domestic life,” they wrote. “To satisfy a prurient taste the details of sexual relations are spread broadcast in the columns of the daily papers.”
Brandeis and Warren were swimming against the tide of history. Indeed, Brandeis himself later became a leading champion of the view that newspapers had not just a right but a duty to expose secrets, writing that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants” for the shadowy doings of Big Business. He would go on to formulate an expansive and influential interpretation of the First Amendment. This conflict in Brandeis’s thought underscores the dual nature of the concept of exposure, which—then as now—could describe either a salutary revelation of wrongdoing or an invasion of the personal domain. It was no coincidence that in the Progressive era, the muckraking of investigative journalists such as Lincoln Steffens and Ray Stannard Baker thrived alongside the sensationalism of William Randolph Hearst.
Even as exposure became enshrined as a progressive principle, however, political sex stories went into eclipse. After the Cleveland coverage, no sex scandal involving a politician of that stature would grace the front pages for a century. This wasn’t for lack of opportunity. In 1915, Woodrow Wilson, a recent widower, conducted a passionate courtship of Edith Galt from the White House. But while Washington insiders gossiped—one joke had it that when Woodrow proposed, Edith was so surprised that she fell out of bed—the public remained unaware of the liaison until the engagement was announced. Warren Harding’s extramarital exertions would provoke titters only after his death, when a tell-all memoir by one of his mistresses, Nan Britton, boasted of assignations in a White House cloakroom. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s affair with Lucy Mercer (later Rutherfurd), and possible liaisons with other women, went unreported, as did Dwight Eisenhower’s probable affair with his driver and secretary, Kay Summersby. Estes Kefauver, a Democratic presidential candidate in 1956, was known to reporters as a notorious womanizer; once, as his campaign bus pulled into an Upper Midwest town, he blurted out “I gotta fuck!” within earshot of Russell Baker of The New York Times. Baker did not report the comment, or the corresponding behavior.
Overall, reporters hadn’t gone soft. Away from politics, sensationalism and gossip were alive and well. “The newspaper reader perceives in the freedom of the press,” Silas Bent, a leading press critic, wrote in the 1920s,
the privilege to invade his personal privacy, print his picture without his consent, dump onto his doorstep filth collected from the courts, and ballyhoo, for the aggrandisement of its own treasure, prize-fighters, channel swimmers, football players, chorus girls and aviators.
But several factors introduced restraint into coverage of politicians’ sex lives. High-minded journalism, of the sort found at The Times, the New York Tribune, or the Associated Press, disdained the traditions of the Gilded Age yellow newspapers and their tabloid successors in favor of fairness, professionalism, and propriety. Starting with Theodore Roosevelt, presidents began to see that the escalating interest in them as personalities, even celebrities—including the hunger for details about their families, recreational habits, and the like—represented less a threat than an opportunity for them to shape the news. Availing themselves of the new public-relations experts, such as Edward Bernays and Bruce Barton, they regained some control of their public images. They took influential journalists into their confidence, making them part of a governing elite. By mid-century, the New York Times journalist James Reston spoke of the “cozy relationship between reporters and officials,” in which he himself reveled. As the historian John Summers has written, a “psychology of insulation” buffered officials from undue probing, making it unthinkable that someone like Ben Bradlee, then the Washington bureau chief for Newsweek, would blow the whistle on the affairs of his friend Jack Kennedy. If the press’s Gilded Age aggressiveness had been born of a desire to weaken the ruling class, now the press—or the agenda-setting part of the press, anyhow—belonged to that ruling class.
It has become common to look back on this period of restraint as an embarrassment. We wince at a press corps that was too enamored of power, or too spooked by World War and Cold War anxieties, to expose our leaders’ feet of clay. We routinely describe the press as having “covered up” for JFK. But reporters weren’t covering up for Kennedy so much as they were abiding by their era’s social and professional codes, which regarded politicians’ personal lives as privileged realms.
That mid-century regime of restraint began to come apart as the conformity of the 1950s gave way to the rebellious openness of the 1960s, a shift that gained urgency after the presidential deceptions of Vietnam and Watergate. The late ’60s and early ’70s saw many Americans joining in a new project of disclosure: congressional committees pulled back the curtain on CIA misdeeds; radical activists “liberated” FBI files; public-interest groups pressed for sunshine laws. Most prominent were the so-called New Muckrakers, a crop of journalists whose work constituted a golden age of investigative reporting: Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein uncovering Watergate; Seymour Hersh reporting on the My Lai massacre and the CIA’s domestic spying. Such reporting went mainstream, as newspapers established special units for deeply researched stories and CBS launched 60 Minutes. White House correspondents assumed a more adversarial stance, and the bond between media and government elites frayed.
Just as the muckraking of the Progressive era had carried its share of sensationalism, so the New Muckraking provoked imitators who adopted a slapdash and undiscriminating attitude toward their investigations. (As Mark Feldstein makes clear in his recent book, Poisoning the Press, the journalist Jack Anderson crossed back and forth over the fine line between the two forms: though he received a Pulitzer for his exposés about the Nixon administration’s secret foreign policy, he also broke with prevailing norms to charge or insinuate that various political figures—including Spiro Agnew’s son—were homosexual.) Before long, the political culture was rife with “feeding frenzies” that consumed the energies of hordes of reporters, editors, and broadcasters. By 1974, minor-league sex romps that once would have remained under wraps—such as the news of Congressman Wilbur Mills’s escapades with the stripper Fanne Foxe, the “Argentine Firecracker”—burst into the news. To argue for discretion in reporting was, as before, to swim against the tide.
The neuroses of Presidents Johnson and Nixon, moreover, had helped to link the personal to the political. To avoid another paranoiac in the White House, journalists began to probe the very psyches of the nation’s leaders. One crucial moment in this transition was the publication in 1976 of Woodward and Bernstein’s second book, The Final Days, a follow-up to All the President’s Men. Where the first book embodied the New Muckraking, telling the Watergate story from the journalists’ point of view, the second volume, focusing on Nixon’s struggle to remain in office, assumed an omniscient tone, and among its many revelations was titillating news about the loveless state of the Nixons’ marriage. This kind of scrutiny was focused on presidents long gone as well. The mid-1970s saw Ben Bradlee’s revelatory Conversations With Kennedy; the Senate investigation that turned up JFK’s affair with the purported Mob go-between Judith Campbell Exner; Kay Summersby’s memoir confessing to her affair with Ike; and Fawn Brodie’s influential psycho-biography of Thomas Jefferson, which rekindled interest in his relationship with Sally Hemings.
Journalists also began vetting possible presidents on sexual grounds. In the 1976 campaign, Jimmy Carter put the question of character front and center, pledging complete truthfulness. Speaking candidly to Playboy of his lust for women other than his wife, he endorsed a new standard of sexual openness while simultaneously upholding a model of sexual rectitude. Paradoxically, Carter’s admission emboldened both liberals who sought to erase sexual taboos and conservatives who wished to enforce them. From this period onward, the sex lives of public officials increasingly seemed like fair game—for the press and for political operatives of both parties, who assimilated the culture of exposure into their ideologies as it suited their needs.
The changing standards could be seen, too, in the topics that journalists deemed scandalous enough to publicize. Making a fuss about divorce now seemed absurd, and Ronald Reagan’s failed first marriage bothered few voters in the 1980 election. On the other hand, adultery now occupied an ambiguous position—no longer so unseemly as to be kept hush-hush at all costs, yet not so normal as to be ho-hum. And so in 1987, Gary Hart, leading the field of Democratic contenders for the 1988 nomination, became the first presidential candidate forced to end his campaign over adultery, when the Miami Herald revealed he had frolicked with the model Donna Rice aboard the yacht Monkey Business. Did the Rice flap amount to an unconscionable breach of Hart’s personal space? (A Gallup poll taken shortly after Hart withdrew found that 64 percent of respondents felt the press had treated him unfairly.) Or was it a worthy instance of uncovering valuable information about the traits of a potential president?
History has never given much reason to believe that either sexual misbehavior, or the deception or hypocrisy that goes along with it, renders a politician unfit for leadership. (Richard Nixon, though monogamous, was our most thoroughly corrupt president, while Ted Kennedy, however personally dissolute, was among the greatest senators.) But in the Hart case, the press came down firmly in favor of exposure, hanging the story on the wobbly peg of “character.” Because Hart had fibbed to conceal the affair with Rice—and had even foolishly dared the press to “put a tail on me”—many journalists claimed to believe that the incident spoke to some critical character flaw, whether it was dishonesty, recklessness, or worse. It soon became commonplace to assume that a politician’s affairs or sexual peccadilloes speak to his moral fiber—especially when they involve (as most extramarital sex does) concealment or deception.
Even as the sexual revolution nudged adultery from a zone of privacy into a more public realm, feminism was refashioning the culture’s understanding of sexual harassment. The scandals surrounding Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas and Senator Bob Packwood in the 1990s showed the speed with which once-tolerated behaviors could become intolerable. They also shored up a kind of bipartisan support for trafficking in political sex stories. Liberals could advocate exposure in defense of women’s equality and dignity, while conservatives—who had a long tradition of holding up private behavior for community censure—now saw it as a useful means to sanctify “family values.”
Hence, when Bill Clinton’s infidelity started coming to light, it made irresistible sense for conservatives to paint him as living proof of liberalism’s moral bankruptcy. Early in Clinton’s presidency, a few GOP leaders had worried about appearing inconsistent. “Republicans who were screaming about Anita Hill are hardly in a position to turn now and run around brandishing Paula Jones,” Newt Gingrich told his colleagues in 1994. But when the Monica Lewinsky scandal rolled around, Gingrich happily threw in his lot with the impeachers. Ultimately, Gingrich suffered more than Clinton, at least politically: in 1998, he had to give up his speakership, with his own extramarital affair looming offstage, even as he was putting the president in the dock. Other GOP leaders, too, came to grief for their infidelities, the remorseless logic of sexual exposure sparing its advocates no more than its intended targets. Clinton, meanwhile, rebounded to exit the White House with the highest public-opinion ratings of any departing president since Gallup began keeping track.
Today’s scandal-a-month journalism has clearly gotten out of control. Rationalizations abound, many of them quite rickety, for tilting the balance between privacy and exposure ever further from the former and closer to the latter. In some cases, such as that of John Edwards, journalists justify a story’s importance through exquisitely circular reasoning: any politician who would engage in outré or risky sexual activities, it is said, deserves to be outed and punished, because he lacks good judgment—since everyone knows that in our current media environment his behavior will eventually explode into a debilitating scandal. Other times, scandal coverage is defended as a “press story,” with media critics using the question of whether the story ought to be covered as an excuse to cover it. And for decades now, the granddaddy of all rationalizations has been the “character” issue that was born of Vietnam and Watergate and became ubiquitous after Gary Hart.
Still more problematic have been the cases where the news coverage has run ahead of the evidence. Although Dominique Strauss-Kahn, whose name is connected to other alleged rapes and sexually predatory deeds, may not deserve sympathy, he was nonetheless all but convicted in the press, before complicating details about his infamous hotel-room liaison were revealed. In the past two presidential elections, two leading candidates were said or insinuated to have been adulterers—John Kerry in multiple newspapers in 2004 and John McCain in The New York Times in 2008—without corroboration.
But complaining about media coverage is pointless; frenzies over sex scandals won’t abate unless the public appetite for them diminishes. Despite appearances, that can happen, at least regarding some forms of sexual behavior. Just as divorce no longer causes a stir, the evolving discourse over exposing gay public officials suggests that homosexuality, too, is exiting the realm of scandal. During the 1990s, radical gay activists made a point of outing gay conservative congressmen, finding justification in the congressmen’s hypocrisy in voting against gay rights. The mainstream media largely ignored those efforts. When a 1989 Republican whispering campaign calling Democratic Speaker Tom Foley gay became too loud to ignore, it was denounced in the press as a “smear.” More recently, though, as being gay has lost much of its stigma, the media have begun outing gay politicians under limited conditions, with the implicit message that their sexuality is no longer controversial in and of itself. For some time, rumors had circulated that Mark Foley, Larry Craig, and Jim McGreevey were gay, without those rumors’ seeing print. But once news organizations had a legitimate pretext for pulling back the curtain—charges that Mark Foley had harassed an underage House page, that McGreevey had put a lover on the state payroll, and that Craig had solicited sex in an airport restroom—they did so. Last year, when Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan was falsely suspected of being gay, some journalists called for her to reveal more about her sex life, arguing that her alleged lesbianism was not scandalous but rather completely unremarkable. On this issue, at least, the balance between a public figure’s right to privacy and the public’s right to know is being recalibrated.
Meanwhile, as more and more details about politicians’ sex lives are exposed, it gets ever harder to maintain that philanderers or louts should automatically be barred from public service. Clinton’s impeachment revealed a gulf between a censorious press corps and a vastly more tolerant citizenry, and over time sexual matters have seemed increasingly irrelevant to assessments of his presidency. Likewise, David Vitter’s visits to a prostitute didn’t deter Louisianans from reelecting him. Among the recent wave of scandals, the story is similar. Despite Strauss-Kahn’s alleged abuses, he by most accounts served ably at the IMF. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s lack of sexual restraint—which had been described in some detail before his election and was confirmed by the disclosure of his affair—never disrupted his governorship. And no one ever really tried to argue that Anthony Weiner’s sexting had interfered with his work in the past; the case for his resignation was that the media hullaballoo about his unseemly hobby would be a “distraction” and render him less effective—a self-fulfilling prophecy if ever there was one. Tellingly, Weiner enjoyed support from a majority of his constituents even when he resigned under pressure from the media and from fellow Democrats.
It’s tempting to wish for a code that could tell journalists how to judge whether a politician’s personal life merits exposure. But issuing a rule book would be futile. New developments are always going to bring us cases, such as Weiner’s, where no precedents apply. More important, our culture also changes—and with it, our standards. The fluid nature of social morality about sex should prescribe a policy of humility and restraint: as social norms evolve, the press needs to pause before presuming that what seems at the moment to be scandalous behavior should disqualify someone from seeking or holding office. We can agree that it matters when a politician severely neglects important duties, engages in egregiously criminal conduct, or misuses public funds. If a governor disappears for days on end to visit his lover, the press should get on the case—as it did with Mark Sanford. But if the candidate running to succeed him is merely alleged to have had an extramarital affair—or two—as was South Carolina’s Nikki Haley, it’s hard to see how that matters.
Yet if we ever do rein in the culture of exposure, it won’t be because the networks and the newspapers settle upon a new regime of enforced reticence. It will happen, more likely, when our society reaches a level of civic tolerance so great that it mutes public reaction to scandal-mongering. Perhaps this is the unexpected benefit of the Internet age’s ruthless exposure of politicians, both the debauched and the all-too-human: by inuring the public to workaday sleaziness, such revelations may help us get to a place where only the true breaches of public trust are met with harsh and lasting penalties. Maybe the public, despite its wholly natural and clearly undiminished appetite for spicy details about the high and mighty, is starting to make up its own mind about which transgressions really matter.