How many male politicians do you think are burning their little black books and expunging e-mails today, as another of their brotherhood bites the dust from his own lack of zipper control?
We have way too much information about John Edwards and his self-described narcissism. Clearly, like any good lawyer, John Edwards can look us straight in the eye and lie like a rug, as he did initially about his affair with Rielle Hunter.
But then sex, lies, and politics go together like peanut butter, jelly, and bread in America. And sex scandals are the one aspect of government that consistently works across geography and party lines. After all John McCain has admitted to affairs himself. There’s no partisanship in bed, except for short-lived tactics where the sway of sex can be used to bring one’s opponent down.
Georgia’s former Republican Representative Newt Gingrich jumped onto Bill Clinton’s fling with intern Monica Lewinsky and nearly brought down the Arkansas Democrat’s presidency. Then Newt’s House leadership position was checkmated by dint of his own peccadilloes. Idaho Congressman Larry Craig, who timidly toe-tapped men across toilet stalls, is a conservative Republican; former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, who brazenly procured women across state lines, is a liberal Democrat.
The question is why these scenarios keep repeating themselves. And the answer, like Gaul, divides into three parts.
First off, we should ask why these guys seem to believe everyone else is vulnerable to the consequences of their behavior but they themselves are going to get away with—whatever it is they need to get away with. Like the time Spitzer turned to me during a dinner party discussion about some other politico’s misbehavior and said with his trademark certainty, “I’m just a boring, dorky, Harvard-educated New York lawyer. Some scandal would make me seem more interesting.”
Well, Eliot sure got his wish; not just the state but the entire nation was fascinated by his subsequent public humiliation. Running for political office takes a great deal of courage and a strong ego. Mix those with testosterone and the thrill of the risk, and it’s not surprising that many men begin to believe they are invincible. And like a baby who thinks no one can see him when he has a blanket over his head, politicians are hiding in plain sight in this era of easy Internet research and YouTube.
But because there is so much shame and secrecy surrounding sex in the U.S., there is also a great deal of denial. So the second part is that American politics are particularly susceptible to being thrown into chaos by the sexual maladventures of our leaders. The more underground sex is pushed, the more surely people will resort to lies after they succumb to what is probably an elevated likelihood that they will taste the forbidden fruit. Meanwhile, Americans still don’t have universal health care, and the economy is in the tank while all political energy is spent on someone’s personal dalliance.
We seem to judge especially sharply the hypocrisy of politicians’ lying about sex. That’s the third part of the puzzle. Except for religious fundamentalists who are just generally obsessed with other people’s sex lives, most voters are actually bothered much more by the lies than by the sexual behavior of our leaders, and for good reason. These men (remember, we still haven’t had a woman president and only 16% of Congress and state governors are women) are making important decisions that affect our lives and livelihoods, after all. We need to be able to feel some level of trust in their judgment.
But are we using the correct measure? Europeans scratch their heads in wonder that we care who our president is having sex with: remember French President Francois Mitterand’s mistress at his funeral along with his wife? Many other cultures have figured out that public figures are far less vulnerable to being derailed from the critical issues facing society when their sex lives can’t be used as ammunition for coercion or impeachment.
Ever since The Scarlet Letter, Americans have demonstrated a difficult relationship with sex. We’re terribly conflicted. Sex is used to sell everything from toothpaste to cars here. Popular music and culture are saturated with sex and sexual images. 800,000,000 (yes, that’s pretty close to a billion) pornographic videos are rented every year. Yet try and get honest, straightforward sexual health information to our young people and see how quickly it gets squashed.
So if we are to learn from yet one more episode of a politician’s traveling pants, the lesson is not that all men are cads or that you can’t trust any politicians. Both might be partly accurate, but that doesn’t mean the same flawed humans can’t simultaneously accomplish good things. Occasionally even great things. Famous philanderers like John F. Kennedy took us to the moon, and Lyndon Johnson got the Civil Rights Act passed.
The more useful lesson to take from John Edwards and his brotherhood is that as a nation we need to get over ourselves and learn to deal with sex straightforwardly. That might bring us less titillating news on the morning shows, but at least we’d be able to keep our attention on solving problems that really matter.
Update 8/12/08 This article, “Wolfson: Edwards Cover-Up Cost Clinton the Nomination” is speculative but intriguing. We’ll never know whether earlier breaking of the news would have changed the course of history.