It was the summer of 1999, and I’d just arrived in Geneva. In a store window, I saw a poster with a Swiss artist’s interpretation of some months-old news from home: Bill Clinton, on a cross, wearing nothing but star-spangled boxer shorts, arrows piercing his heart. The depiction jibed with what conservatives were constantly told by the president’s defenders: Grow up; sophisticated Europeans are laughing at our puritanical country for caring about a great man’s affair.
Around that time, a future presidential candidate faced allegations he’d sexually harassed female workers. Twelve years later, Herman Cain sees that the “Puritans” won.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Boys (and girls) will be dolts, and Clinton’s example was never going to turn every politician into a saint. But a presidential deposition, followed by impeachment proceedings, created such a spectacle that, we were told, our attitudes toward our leaders would loosen up.
Early in the Clinton scandal, the Economist newspaper cited opinion polls suggesting most Americans believed Clinton had an affair with an intern but approved of him anyway.
“Maybe this is just a freak: public opinion is fickle,” the British-based newspaper editorialized. “But, just as possibly, Mr Clinton’s popularity signals a change in sexual mores: only three years ago, after all, Bob Packwood was hounded from the Senate for making passes at interns. … Sexual harassment is bad. But, judging from the popular response to Clinterngate, many Americans feel that zealous efforts to stamp it out can be worse.”
Frank Rich, then a columnist at the New York Times, noted the blurring line between journalism and entertainment:
“Barbara Walters commiserated with Bernard Lewinsky last Friday about how the scandal has dashed his daughter’s childhood dream of being the first woman President. That made for terribly touching drama, but in a culture in which celebrity conquers all, surely the exact opposite is true: Monica Lewinsky’s chances of holding public office someday have never been greater than they are now.”
Sex scandals do sell — for real celebrities. But, regardless of what becomes of Cain’s candidacy, the trend is for politicians to be shamed out of sight when private affairs are made public.
An instructive, though perhaps not exhaustive, example: Wikipedia’s entry for “federal political sex scandals in the United States” names 19 members of Congress between 1980 and 1999 who, while in office, admitted to affairs or were accused of sexual harassment. The bulk of them, 13, ran for re-election; 10 won. Only six resigned or didn’t run again.
Since 2000, Wikipedia lists 16 such members of Congress. The ratios are exactly reversed: Just five of them ran for re-election, and only three won. The other 11 resigned or retired.
Americans overwhelmingly, and increasingly, tell opinion pollsters that an extramarital affair is morally wrong. By smaller margins, they say an affair shouldn’t disqualify a candidate for office. Yet, politicians seem more apt to quit when such an accusation arises. What gives?
Maybe it’s that the media glare has gotten brighter and hotter. Maybe it’s that political careers based more on image than substance are hard to sustain once the image is dulled.
But maybe, just maybe, there are still enough Americans who realize, when our institutions appear so broken, that the character of the people running those institutions still counts.
– By Kyle Wingfield