When it comes to sex scandals, the United States is not France. Recall former French President François Mitterrand’s funeral, at which his wife and mistress stood side by side. Contrast it with the Starr Report's detailing then-President Bill Clinton’s escapades with Monica Lewinsky, and you get a sense of the enormous cultural difference separating us from the Old World. The U.S.’s more puritan approach has both strengths and weaknesses. Although it distracts many politicians from discharging their public duties, it also reflects a moral consensus that is fast eroding and worth preserving.
Many a U.S. politician has sunk, or almost sunk, from salacious conduct. There was Gary Hart in 1987, daring the press to nail him and then being nailed with a beautiful young woman on his lap on a yacht. Most memorable in the '90s was Clinton's assuring the nation, “I did not have sex with that woman, Monica Lewinsky” only to have Ken Starr detail all the ways in which he did. Republican Mark Foley resigned from the House in '06 after allegations of homosexual relations with a page. Republican Governor of South Carolina Mark Sanford barely held on after admitting to an affair. Former Rep. Anthony Weiner, forced out of his congressional seat only weeks ago, will take the cake.
Scandals can be a big deal. The 1988 presidential election, which Bush, Sr. won decisively, could have been very different if Democrat Gary Hart had run. There is anecdotal evidence that George W. Bush won in 2000 as a direct result of L’affaire Lewinsky — Al Gore did not ask Clinton to campaign for him. And Republicans lost the House in 2006, in large part, as a result of the Foley scandal.
There are two perspectives on sex scandals. The first is that they are a distraction or worse, turning away the attention of our public officials from public to monkey business. In a free society, this argument goes, the public sphere should be separate from the private. Public competence has nothing to do with private rectitude. Clinton, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House Elect Bob Livingston, former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, and arguably even former North Carolina Senator and vice-presidential candidate John Edwards could have served the people longer and more effectively had it not been for the prying eye of a sensationalist or prude. Recent scientific research suggests that an individual’s risk of infidelity even goes up with the amount of power held.
The other perspective is that we are unique and can speak of American exceptionalism because we believe that morality should be a robust part of public life. Alexis de Tocqueville, author of the best book ever written on America, started his account with the Puritans. He could have started with the slavers and fortune-seekers in Virginia; he chose not to. The Emancipation Proclamation would have never been issued without the zeal and energy of the abolitionists of the 1850s, who were the religious fanatics of their day. So, as many of us decry the Tea Party and bemoan America’s obsession with extramarital sex, let us be wary lest we toss out the baby with the bathwater.
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