"I have known eleven Prime Ministers," William Gladstone is reputed to have said, "and seven of them were adulterers." To bring this discussion closer to home, we can also cite T. H. White, who wrote that in his long career covering presidential elections, only three of the candidates he'd observed had been faithful to their wives. Bear in mind that this observation wasn't restricted to actual nominees; it encompassed all viable candidates of both parties during their respective primary seasons. (And yes, White named the virtuous ones. Figuring out who they are is too good a parlor game for me to identify them now; I'll append the names at the end of the entry. If you want to guess, don't peek*.)
Clearly, sexual probity and political ambition make, so to speak, strange bedfellows.
The last couple of years have supplied us with a bumper crop of political sex scandals. Eliot Spitzer and Mark Foley and Larry Craig and John Ensign and Mark Sanford were among the most visible. I think we can reasonably include Ted Haggard as well; while it's true he didn't hold elective office, he certainly played a role in the country's political discourse that was far from negligible. Once upon a time, such things went unreported. Washington, DC and most state capitals were for all practical purposes boys' clubs; journalists in those venues were certainly aware of the rampant shenanigans occurring in their midst, and not infrequently were fellow participants. But there was an accepted code dictating that behavior and misbehavior without legal repercussions and not directly affecting an official's performance (and in many cases, especially those involving alcoholism, even when they did), were to be considered a sort of Masonic secret shared only by members of the lodge.
All that changed in 1988, when the Miami Herald saw fit to break the story of Gary Hart's fling with Donna Rice. It brought his campaign, and soon his political career, to an abrupt end. After that, for better or worse, politicians' sexual escapades were considered fair game. Because, with the exception of Client Number Nine, virtually all of the more recent scandals have involved conservative Republicans, there's been a rather unseemly and ill-considered display of glee on the part of Democrats in recent weeks. Are their memories as short as all that? It wasn't so long ago that a Captain Ahab of a special prosecutor, assisted by a staff disproportionately made up of members of conservative think tanks like the Federalist Society, transformed an investigation into Bill Clinton's connection to a failed real estate venture, after finding no wrong-doing, into a bizarre and vindictive hunt for evidence of presidential sexual malfeasance. It was an ugly and self-defeating exercise then, and it's no more constructive now. Virtue and vice are no respecters of party.
Of course, the element of hypocrisy involved in the current batch of incidents makes them tempting to enjoy, and makes it harder for Democrats to resist crowing. How many of those recently exposed voted for Clinton's conviction during the impeachment trial? How many supported Bob Barr's Defense of Marriage Act? How many are opposed to ending Don't Ask Don't Tell? The hypocrisy is appalling, and invites ridicule. Most politicians feel compelled to be hypocritical about sex to a degree, but there are some who take it farther than others, deep into realms of intolerance. It requires a real effort to feel much sympathy when they find themselves humiliated. But still, I think such considerations are largely extrinsic. There are always reasons besides prurient interest --- beyond entertainment value --- adduced for publicizing sexual turpitude. It's never, we're assured, about the sex per se, it's always about some other perceived errancy. He lied. There were pay-offs to the mistress and her family. State funds were used for travel. A Congressional page was, at least in some jurisdictions, underage. And so on. The truth remains that these stories are stories because sex was involved; the rest is window dressing. It might be different if actual harassment were part of the scenario, and God knows the definition of sexual harassment has been evolving over the past couple of decades, and rightly; but with the arguable exception of Mark Foley, and the contested --- although likely incontestable --- case of Clarence Thomas, harassment has rarely been raised as an issue.
Many people enjoy reading about the sex lives of the famous and enjoy seeing the powerful brought down a peg. If that weren't true, British journalism as we know it would cease to exist. And I'm not claiming to be superior to such voyeuristic impulses. Information of this nature unquestionably is interesting. But that doesn't mean we have a right to it. Anyone who sullies himself by reading the published companion volume to Kenneth Starr's official report, the so-called documentation, knows more about Bill Clinton's sexual habits than he does about those of his closest friends. What principle can possibly make this acceptable? What notion of the public's right to know includes such data? Adults surely understand that the sexual life and the sexual imagination are by their nature unruly, and distinct from other areas of our lives. This is even true for those of us who lead a perfectly humdrum existence. They aren't free of a moral dimension, of course, but it's a private moral dimension with very little relationship to the other areas of people's lives. A certain privacy with respect to matters not directly related to our public responsibilities ought to be ceded us; Americans would by and large prefer not to live in Calvin's Geneva, or under the moral thumb of ayatollahs. I'm not suggesting we need to approve of any marital misbehavior, I'm just saying it's none of our damned business.
"If a man can't be trusted by his wife," went one hectoring slogan during Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign, "why should he be trusted by the American people?" To which the simple answer might be, "Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Martin Luther King, and all those presidential candidates alluded to by T. H. White." Plus, no doubt, a bunch of people we don't know about, including the seven Prime Ministers invoked by William Gladstone.
*The three exceptions named by T.H. White were Harry Truman, George Romney, and Jimmy Carter. Which leaves us a remarkable number of rascals.