John Edwards and the Brotherhood of the Traveling Pants

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.

What Was Eliot Thinking? Part 2

Even Nora Ephron couldn’t make it funny. The comments on my Huffington Post version of the Heartfeldt post “What was Eliot Thinking?” were more thoughtful than the smart-ass or angry replies I usually get. They divide into three categories: “legalize prostitution”, “yes men’s brains are in their pants, so what were you thinking, Gloria?”, and “despite the fact that men’s brains are in their pants, some of them can still resist infidelity.” A few touch on the illegality and hypocrisy aspects of the case.

There’s been lots of chatter but not nearly the amount of joking that, say, Sen. Wide-Stance Craig got after his toe-tapping incident. PunditMom said simply and clearly what I absolutely think must happen: resign.

We are scandal-weary, inured to the shock. Perhaps the height of Spitzer’s stunning rise to power and depth of his fall have whistled by us so fast we see them as a blur. Is that how Dr. Laura got a gig on the Today show to flack her misogynist theory that the wife is to blame for not feeding the husband’s needs. (I won’t dignify her with a link.)?

I just keep thinking about the beautiful, kind, and smart wife Silda and their three daughters. I first met them socially as a family over a decade ago, before he ran for attorney general. And then I think of how he and other arrogant politicians like him take all their supporters down with them: all the contributors to his campaign, his political party, the voters who voted for him.

As much as I don’t care about what other people do with their sex lives, I care a lot about fostering the burgeoning interest in politics that young people are exhibiting these days. If Spitzer doesn’t resign and quickly and cleanly, many will retreat back into the shell of cynicism.

For that reason if no other, it is essential that Spitzer do the honorable thing now as the first step in his, and our, redemption.

What Was Eliot Thinking?

Sick to my stomach. That’s my initial reaction to the breaking story of Eliot Spitzer’s admission that he has been involved with a prostitution ring.

What was he thinking? What is is that makes men in high profile political positions think they can get away with this kind of thing, even after Bill and Monica, even after Larry Craig’s toe tapping, even after…well, you can fill in the blanks. There are too many dozens of names and sex scandals to recount here.

It is the rush of power that makes these guys think they are invincible? Testosterone run amuck? Is the answer in the old joke about where men’s brains are? And is there a correlation between amount of crusading for other people’s morality a politician does and the likelihood that he will fall into illicit or immoral behavior patterns himself?

You tell me. This time I am completely speechless.