Petraeus Affair: Democrats and Republicans Both Find Bipartisanship in Infidelity


This may seem odd coming from the pen of a liberal Democrat (er, keyboard), but here it goes: Gerald Ford is my favorite president of the past forty years.

There are plenty of good reasons for liberals to admire Ford. Foremost among them is the fact that he was the last genuinely moderate Republican to inhabit the White House, with his battle against Ronald Reagan in the 1976 presidential primaries marking the final time a centrist obtained the top slot on the GOP national ticket without making egregious concessions to the party's fringe elements (ironically, Reagan himself would be considered insufficiently conservative by many Republicans today). 

In addition, despite being stigmatized as America's first unelected president (he was appointed to the vice presidency to replace the disgraced Spiro Agnew and became president after Richard Nixon resigned), Ford racked up a wide array of important achievements during his nine hundred day presidency. 

He made the brave decision to pardon Nixon, willingly accepting the public's harsh backlash in order to bring closure to the Watergate scandal; guaranteed special education programs throughout the United States by signing the Education for All Handicapped Children Act into law; stood up to right-wing misogyny by pushing for the Equal Rights Amendment and supporting his wife when she praised Roe v. Wade (although Ford believed abortion laws should be left to the states, he later came out as pro-choice); thawed Cold War tensions by signing the Helsinki Accords; prevented an international crisis by retaking the USS Mayaguez from the Khmer Rouge; and laid the foundation for the Israel-Egypt peace treaty by attaching American aid to Israel to that nation's signing of the Sinai Interim Agreement.

That said, Ford recently came to my mind for a completely different reason. As new details emerge about the David Petraeus affair, I was reminded of an interview between Ford and journalist Thomas DeFrank, one conducted for a candid tell-all on the former president's life and political beliefs that both parties agreed would not be published until after his death. Ford marveled at how many successful men had allowed their libido to override their better judgment. One particularly sage observation from that exchange deserves to be quoted in full:

"You have to think of the ten bad things that could happen to you from something like that and the one good thing, and tell yourself the one good thing will get taken care of some other way."

Indeed. While there is nothing new about the famous and powerful succumbing to their carnal instincts, one might assume that the growth of electronic journalism and social media would have had a discouraging effect. Instead, the last half-dozen years alone have had both a senator and a governor exposed as johns, two congressmen taken down by sexually explicit adulterous e-mails, three more face legal charges for sexual harassment and/or assault, two virulently anti-homosexual politicians get caught up in gay sex scandals, and a former presidential candidate father an illegitimate child while his wife slowly died of breast cancer.

And that is just the short list. The two parties may not agree on much, but when it comes to infidelity and sexual waywardness, a genuine bipartisanship seems to exist.

It doesn't take any special insight into the human animal to understand why this keeps happening. Not only are we biologically programmed to desire sexual gratification from people we find physically and/or intellectually attractive, but also we live in a society that conflates our sexual desirability with our greater self-worth. For women, this usually results in brutal social pressure for them to adhere to an "ideal" standard in their physical appearance (a subject I addressed in greater detail here). Men, on the other hand, tend to judge each other based on the perceived scope of their sexual conquests, with the quantity and/or attractiveness of a man's sexual partners used as a primary means of validating or invalidating his overall masculinity (inversely, promiscuous women are viciously condemned). Even as we denounce public figures who allow this drive to get the better of them, the ethos is reinforced practically everywhere else we turn, from our popular culture (as seen in too many movies, television shows, books, and music videos to count) to our personal lives (as anyone who has been in a mainstream high school or college can attest).

This is why I find Ford's perspective here to be so valuable. While it's important for us to try to eradicate the gender prejudices responsible for creating this sexual climate in the first place, the sobering reality is that these attitudes have existed since the dawn of civilization. They can still be overcome, of course — and I say this primarily because they must be overcome — but until that happens, men who have great personal gifts to offer their country need to be admonished from throwing them away.

That brings us back to why a liberal Democrat would prefer Ford to any other modern president. Although progressives will be able to figure out why I rank him above most of his successors (Carter is disqualified by his incompetence, Reagan by pushing America to the right on economic and social issues, both George Bushes by kowtowing to Reagan's New Right coalition, and Obama by the fact that his story is still being written), they may be surprised that Ford beats Bill Clinton in my estimation. The reason for this is that, for all of Clinton's accomplishments — including a record-breaking period of unprecedented prosperity, a balanced budget, welfare reform, and the creation of the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) — he still allowed the Lewinsky scandal to drag the nation into a costly and exhausting impeachment trial. Although it'd be wrong to claim that his sexual indiscretions negate his impressive record (as many right-wingers have done), the undeniable reality is that his pursuit of the "one good thing" that comes from infidelity caused him to leave an ineffable blemish on his presidency. He put a shortsighted pursuit of pleasure and sexual validation over the integrity of his legacy ... and, as with David Petraeus today, America paid the price.

If other talented public figures want to avoid putting themselves and their country through a similar ordeal, they must resist temptation by remembering Gerald Ford's common sense advice.