Sex and the Married Politician

The list of politicos laid low by sexual scandal grows ever longer. It hasn’t always been this way. Fifty years ago, the press famously considered politicians’ sex lives off-limits, however colorful. Go back to the Gilded Age, though, and salacious gossip was front-page news. Taken as a whole, history offers a few lessons on when the press should opt for exposure—and when it should leave well enough alone.

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.

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David Greenberg is an associate professor of history and of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University. The author of Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image, he is at work on a history of political spin.

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