Wednesday, July 1, 2009
Infidelity is no longer a career-killer for politicians. But weirdness, mendacity and ineptitude just might be. By GERARD BAKER Familiar as it was in its essential plot, the agony of Mark Sanford this week was curiously singular in its theatrical detail. Sex has upended so many political careers in the last few years that we have become dully inured to the tableau of staged contrition by which the fault is confessed to the world. Whether the backdrop is Washington or Trenton, Boise or Albany, the script is always the same. But in Columbia, S.C., last Wednesday, a week of surreal small-state misadventure was fittingly capped with a press conference that might have been scripted by David Lynch, with its mysterious, murmuring stream-of-consciousness observations about life and love. There was, for once, no adoring wife, standing by her man, gazing dewy-eyed at the flawed hero. There was no attempt by the sinner to explain his sin in artfully phrased self-exonerations; no references to some inner demon, an abusive father, an addictive personality or the indescribable pressures of working so hard for the good of the American people. There were instead some cringe-making, if honest, excursions through the cheap literary landscape of forbidden love (“the odyssey that we’re all on in life is with regard to heart”); a little homespun moral theology, (“God’s law indeed is there to protect you from yourself”), and, with its hemispheric wild-goose-chase subplot, from Appalachia to Argentina, an inescapable sense of borderline insanity about the entire event. For all the talk of yet another politician dragged down by an uncontrollable libido, it may well be the sheer strangeness of Mr. Sanford’s behavior, rather than his original sin, that will do him the most political harm. Though adultery was, and still is perhaps for a minority of voters, an automatic disqualification for political office, the fact is that the moral rules by which American politicians are judged are complex and changing. It has long been an axiom of clever, enlightened Europeans that public attitudes to sex, like capital markets, the social-welfare safety net, and advertising on television, are an essential point of cleavage, as it were, between the Anglo-Saxon model of government and society on the one hand, and that of the continental Europeans on the other. The Americans and the Brits are, in this view, the psycho-sexually repressed victims of their puritan moral heritage and their Protestant work-ethic. This supposedly makes them all prudes, ready at the drop of a pair of underpants, to cry foul and hound our political leaders out of office. For the Europeans, especially those of a Latin provenance, the sexual antics of politicians are of no more consideration in the judgment of their suitability for office than is what they eat for breakfast. In Europe this week a fair amount of fun was had at the coincidence that, on the same day that Mr. Sanford performed his mea culpa, Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister, was cheerily waving off the latest set of allegations about his relationships with young girls. Mr. Berlusconi’s skirt-chasing tendencies—though doubtless offensive to many Italian women—are considered an inevitable by-product of the machismo that has made him a lot of money and handed him the reins of Italian government for longer than almost any Italian politician since Caesar Augustus. Also this week, in Paraguay, a country whose cultural influences are similarly Latin, the president, Fernando Lugo, was accused of sexual assault by a former housekeeper. He has already admitted to being the father of one illegitimate child and is alleged to have fathered others. Oh, and by the way, he is a former Catholic bishop. Now while it is probably hard to imagine an American president or a British prime minister getting away with the Berlusconi-Lugo style of governing, does that really make the Anglo-Saxons prudish? There’s a view popular in the U.S., too, that while once, many years ago, American leaders, from Thomas Jefferson to John F. Kennedy, may have been allowed, European-style, to get away with a sizable amount of sexual extra-curricular activity while in office, nowadays strait-laced America forbids such behavior. But this view is neither right in its historical perspective—Jefferson’s antics were considered quite notorious and political fair game even by contemporaries—nor, more importantly, in its consideration of the current political climate. The evidence of recent years in fact appears seems to be that straight (in every sense of the term) adultery is no longer a political disqualification for office, not even in Bible Belt states, and not even for Bible-wielding Republican politicians. Instead the role that sex plays in politics is more nuanced. The common view is that hypocrisy is a bigger career-killer than actual sexual misconduct; that if you’re a finger-wagging, family-preserving conservative, you’re going to have a harder time sustaining a career after revelations that you strayed than if you’re a permissive liberal. There’s clearly something to this. Certainly part of the secret of Bill Clinton’s survival, one assumes, was that no one ever imagined that the former president was trying to tell people how to be a good married man. When Arnold Schwarzenegger ran for governor of California, highly plausible claims that he had made unwelcome advances towards a number of women scarcely dinted his election prospects. And Eliot Spitzer, the former New York governor whose career was cut short by an expensive prostitute habit, seems to be on course for an improbable comeback. EPA Newt Gingrich had an affair during President Clinton’s impeachment. But even conservative Republicans caught in the act have not necessarily been terminally doomed by their sins: Larry Craig, the Idaho senator who mistook the alluring shoe of a law-enforcement officer in a public lavatory for that of a willing sexual collaborator—and broke the law, to boot—was not forced from office, despite an uproar. Sen. David Vitter, who became embroiled in another prostitute scandal, to this day continues to represent the people of Louisiana. And Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, who was having an affair with a woman at roughly the same time that he was impeaching Bill Clinton, is now considered one of the front runners for the Republican nomination in 2012. So even hypocrisy—the homage that vice pays to virtue, it is said— is not an immediate disqualification either. Perhaps mature voters have concluded that hypocrisy among politicians is not something that comes as a terrible shock. In fact, so attenuated has the power of the sexual scandal become that there are some indications that it might even help some conservative politicians. View Full Image AFP/Getty Images If Britain’s John Major had publicized his longtime affair, it might have helped him avert a Conservative rout. When it was revealed a few years ago, to the utter astonishment of an unsuspecting British public, that John Major, the former prime minister, had been carrying on an affair for years with a cabinet member, it was widely commented that, if only the public had known at the time that the boring, plodding nonentity of a politician who led them was actually a red-hot lover, it might have helped him avert the worst defeat for the Conservative party in almost 80 years. So the chances are not at all bad that if Mr. Sanford had done what some of his fellow penitent adulterers had done, simply fessed up a couple of weeks ago to his infidelity, and thrown himself on the mercy of his wife and the people of South Carolina, he might well have been able to salvage a political career. Instead, he was erratic, untruthful and seems to have spent state money on furthering the affair. If anything undoes him, it will be that. And yet the whole sex question, and what it says about politicians, still clearly—though in slightly recondite ways—has an effect on public attitudes towards politicians. For most voters, even perhaps the most permissive or forgiving, moral character is never to be wholly divorced from assessments of a politician’s suitability for office. Few people these days would agree with the assessment of William Bennett, the former cabinet member and conservative commentator, who said this week that Mr. Sanford’s behavior rendered him unfit for office: “A cheat in private is going to be a cheat in public. Someone who lies in private is going to lie in public, and you can’t trust someone who does that.” But people surely still give some weight to the character issues in their assessment of a candidate. Who doubts that part of the considerable popular appeal of President Barack Obama is that he is an evidently decent family man; a husband clearly in love with his wife and devoted to his daughters. Polls still show that overwhelming majorities of voters believe character is important to their assessment of a politician’s appeal. This suggests that the issue of personal behavior may have lost its force as a negative factor in politics, but it still clearly has the power to be a positive one. Infidelity and sexual misdemeanors may not kill a political career, but an impression of faithfulness and decency can still help one. It should be remembered too, that while character matters, voters seem prepared to see sexual failures as only one part of the character issue. There’s no particular reason that other traits such as personal courage, hard work or humility should matter less in a political career than the sexual fidelity of a candidate. But it ought to be clear that even among supposedly character-obsessed Anglo-Saxons there is an asymmetry to this relationship. Voters have shown a marked willingness to forgive a politically effective rogue. They can never be expected to extend the same forbearance to a morally perfect fool.