And so we have another Washington, D.C., sex scandal and the blogs on both sides of the ideological spectrum (there being no middle in the blogosphere) are shooting broadsides back and forth. The liberals are guffawing at the obvious hypocrisy of Louisiana Sen. David Vitter’s (a “family values” conservative) phone number showing up in the logs of the “D.C. Madam” and his confession to “a very serious sin.”
The conservative bloggers and pundits have been hauling out that well-beaten piñata Bill Clinton and his Oval Office fellatio fest as if that were somehow relevant. (Not unlike the conservatives bleating about Clinton’s pardon of Marc Rich to justify Bush’s abrogation of the judge’s sentence in the case of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby. Funny how each side points to the very behaviors they have condemned as somehow ameliorating the actions of their team.)
But outside the “gotcha world” of the blogosphere, mainstream media is pretty much letting the Vitter story die. The bloggers think this reveals the stodgy irrelevance of the media, but letting the story die is a very good sign — maybe a sign we are growing up.
One does not have to condone extra-marital affairs, or visiting prostitutes — and our recent MSNBC.com survey showed unequivocally that most of us do not — to realize that many people often fail to live up to the ideals they set for themselves and others. Ideals are a vision of perfection, a goal. But many people, maybe most of us, cart around some personal desire for an indulgence we may regret later, but cannot resist right now.
The desires could be small, such as a double cheese pizza when we’re under doctor’s orders to lose weight, or they could be as large as taking out a second mortgage to purchase the Jaguar we know we should not buy. We will regret it later, but human weakness betrays us.
A marriage adds another layer of complication. No outsider can look inside a marriage and accurately deduce the sexual desires and emotional needs at play. These are too intensely private. When the Vitters say they have addressed the senator’s “sin” within their relationship and that it is between them and them alone, they are correct.
Whether or not Mrs. Vitter chose to forgive her husband is for her to decide, not us.
A very long history
The same is true for the rest of us. It does not imply approval to say that many people stumble sexually. Many of us break promises and regret breaking those promises. Whether or not to forgive is up to the people we betrayed.
For the rest of us, this is not a political issue, but a personal one. Why should it be different for a politician? Lately, though, we have insisted on turning sex into politics, as if sexual fidelity were the measure of wise leadership.
Hard to imagine now, I know, but there was a time when we were more grown up about this sort of thing. If Vitter had visited a prostitute in Washington, D.C., 100 years ago, his actions would have been perfectly legal. Houses of prostitution dotted the area around the National Mall until they were banned in 1914. If a senator visited a hooker back then, it was a matter for himself, the hooker, the madam and the guy’s wife.
Unsanctioned sex and political figures have a very long history in our country. There was Thomas Jefferson and the slave Sally Hemmings, and Benjamin Franklin’s sexual adventures both here and in France. Grover Cleveland, a paragon of rectitude in office who helped stymie the corrupt Tammany Hall machine in New York, admitted to fathering a child to a woman not his wife. Even though Republicans tried to make hay of the fact with the campaign chant “Ma, ma, where’s my pa?” he was elected president.
Warren Harding was famous for his paramours. Franklin Roosevelt had a recurring affair with his wife’s secretary. John F. Kennedy had an affair with a young intern, among others.
Can you imagine our history without these men if they had been blackballed from engaging in the nation’s political life because of actions in their intimate lives? If we had made the private sexual habits of our officials a litmus test, we would not have had them.
Congress itself has never been a straitlaced bunch nor free of sexual hypocrisy. Sen. Joe McCarthy’s right-hand hatchet man, Roy Cohn, was gay. Congressman Wilbur Mills’ lover, a stripper named Fanne Foxe, wound up woozy in the D.C. Tidal Basin. Congressman Wayne Hayes hired a secretary — a mistress — who admitted she had no idea how to type. Sen. Strom Thurmond, former segregationist, fathered an illegitimate child to a black woman.
So what? The idea that a person’s intimate behavior somehow determines how good an elected official they might be is childish. By all accounts, Richard Nixon never cheated on his wife, Pat, and was loved by his daughters. He was also a crook.
In a perfect world, there would be no hypocrisy, but not only is this not a perfect world, Congress has institutionalized hypocrisy. (Remember the Democrats on campaign contributions? Republicans on bipartisanship and small government?)
But it’s not just Congress. Who among us always lives up to our own ideals? Whose spouse always smiles happily the way staged campaign photos show political spouses? We all live complicated lives in some way or other, and this is especially true when it comes to our sex lives. But by endorsing a political culture that forces candidates to fake their sexual and intimate lives for the sake of the camera and our childish notions of propriety, we are demanding that they be better than us.
This pretending damages our political culture by presenting an ideal as a fact of life. It does not imply approval of sexual infidelity to argue that we ought to look beyond the intimate relationships of politicians, beyond the staged, managed marriages, to what politicians say in their public roles and the laws they propose.
Embrace the idea
Ideals — and ideas — are worth struggling for. The people who espouse them may be flawed, but those flaws do not negate the ideas.
The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution never mention sex or the private lives of politicians, but they are full of great ideas. We have not always lived up to those grand ideas in real life. “All men are created equal” was written by a slaveholder. The phrase sat there on parchment for nearly a century before slavery finally ended, and it wasn’t until the Civil Rights era that blacks in this country had much legal assurance they could be full participants in our democracy. As a nation, we were hypocrites. But we embraced the idea and the ideal.
So we should stop judging political candidates and other officials on their private sex lives and start judging them on their ideas. Vitter, for example, is an advocate of abstinence-only sex education. That’s a bad idea because it simply does not work. “Family values” conservatives will even muzzle the Surgeon General of the United States to hide those facts, but the idea itself is not good or bad because Vitter paid a hooker.
Maybe we are finally admitting this to ourselves. In San Francisco, Mayor Gavin Newsom, who has had an affair with another man’s wife, faces only token opposition for re-election. (Yes, I know, it’s San Francisco, but still.) In Los Angeles, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa admitted to a 1994 extra-marital affair but was elected mayor anyway. His most recent affair with a TV personality has undone his marriage and created consternation among some in the city, but he remains popular. The affairs have no bearing on how well he can run Los Angeles.
Now Vitter has publicly confessed to his “sin,” and though bloggers are struggling to keep the story alive, Vitter returned to work this week and mainstream media seems content to drop the scandal.
Meanwhile, the country is mired in a litany of problems such as the occupation of Iraq, huge deficits, facing the return of dictatorship in Russia and elsewhere, a shoddy health care system, trying to dismantle al Qaeda … It’s a long list. Maybe we have finally come to realize that in the grand scheme, a senator’s indiscretions matter a lot to him and his wife, but not very much to us. Private sexual compulsions do not make someone worthy of a vote — their ideas do.
MSNBC.com columnist and Glamour magazine contributing editor Brian Alexander’s book, “America Unzipped: In Search of Sex and Satisfaction,” will be published Jan. 15 by Crown/Harmony Books.