John Edwards: The Latest in a Pathetic Parade

Why do politically powerful men so frequently behave so badly?

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It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a (not necessarily) single man in possession of a good fortune -- and political power -- must be in want of a wife. But not exclusively.

This variation on Jane Austen's masterful opening of Pride and Prejudice came to mind in recent days during what seems like an endless procession of male politicos accused of, to varying degrees, sexual misconduct.

Senate investigators found evidence that former Nevada Sen. John Ensign broke the law when he tried to cover up an extramarital affair. Then the former chief of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, was arrested and later charged with sexually assaulting a New York City hotel maid. Next came the news that former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had fathered a child with a household staffer and kept it a secret from his wife for 10 years. And in the latest development, ABC news reports that the Justice Department plans to prosecute former presidential candidate John Edwards for using campaign money to - sound familiar? -- cover up an extramarital affair.

(PICTURES: Political Sex Scandals)

Mind you, this has all taken place in a two-week period.

Which brings us back to Jane Austen. Why do politically powerful men so frequently behave so badly?

The answer is simple: Because they can. Because their money and power and connections and ego enable them to take whatever they want from women, often without any repercussions.

Look at Bill Clinton, whose sexual escapades in the Oval Office produced an impeachment trial and a lifetime of fodder for late-night comics but hasn't destroyed his image as one of the most popular Democratic leaders in the country. Look at Eliot Spitzer, the allegedly "disgraced" former governor of New York who was caught patronizing prostitutes and landed a lucrative talk show job on national television. Look at Newt Gingrich, the twice-divorced, admitted adulterer, who is unabashedly blaming his work ethic and running for president of the United States.

Now try to imagine a woman getting away with any of this behavior. Ya think?

This is not some prudish reaction to boorish men who cheat on their wives. Infidelity is a personal issue between spouses, with the damage typically limited to the family circle.

But many of these cases involving politically powerful men are much more complicated than two consenting adults acting recklessly. They involve men who have exploited their considerable power, betrayed the public trust, and taken advantage of vulnerable women.

If they are this cavalier about the use of their power in private life, why should we trust them not to do so in their public capacity?

And then there's the other inconvenient truth about the messy private lives of public men. They tend to set a template for the rest of us.

When we give a Spitzer, a Bill Clinton or a Gingrich a pass on their pasts, what kind of role models are we setting for future husbands and fathers - and their wives and children?

The only good news in the last fortnight's unseemly parade of zipper problems: It's heartening to see that in at least a few instances, some of the bad actors might pay a price.

We can only hope that the next TV season doesn't bring us the Arnold-Dominique, John and John show. Let's have a little pride -- and cultivate some well-placed prejudice.

Image: Jim Young/Reuters

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Beth Reinhard is a political correspondent for National Journal.

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