“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.