Right up until 2016 or so, there was a clean narrative about political infidelity. Back in the day, the story went, politicians had affairs with abandon—John Kennedy, of course, but also Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, and plenty others. (It’s a curiosity that Richard Nixon, the most famously unethical president, is one of the few without serious allegations of infidelity.)
The voters would have been appalled, of course, but the press discreetly ignored these infidelities, for whatever reasons—prudishness, excessive closeness to sources, whatever. When Jimmy Carter copped to having “committed adultery in my heart many times,” it was laughable, but not that that far beyond the puritanical mores of American society. Perhaps the press was wise to look away from mistresses to the presidents.
Then something went off the rails, perhaps around the time of stories of infidelity that chased Gary Hart from the 1988 presidential election. The climax came with Bill Clinton’s impeachment amid his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Not only was Clinton an adulterer; so was Newt Gingrich, the speaker of the House who led the charge to impeach him, and so was Bob Livingston, the man who was supposed to replace Gingrich. (Let’s not even start on Dennis Hastert, who ultimately got the gavel.) Suddenly the press was eagerly searching out and finding affairs in many politicians’ pasts. The see-no-evil attitude of the Camelot years had evaporated, leaving in its place a regime that was puritanical, or at the very least meant that morality overshadowed all else, pundits complained, and chased perfectly good politicians out of the public sphere, merely because they chased a skirt or six.