Now that the election is over, our nation again turns its white-hot gaze to the inability of middle-aged men in positions of power to keep it in their pants and refrain from exchanging sexy-talk over the Internet.
The substances of the scandal aside – and the story does keep getting weirder – events like this do real harm to governance.
That’s because the most precious commodity in governance is attention.
Every sex scandal cuts into media coverage that might otherwise be about an issue of substance, be it debt reduction, immigration, or a host of other issues. It consumes valuable time for members of Congress who will no doubt launch investigations. It fills Washington’s already-humid air with the hot off-gassings of gossip. Every conversation that begins, “Did you hear the latest about what the politician did with their genitals?” is a conversation that doesn’t begin with, “Did you the latest about what the politician said about the future of our country?”
At least for now we are being spared the grainy visages of shirtless or pantless Congressmen. And for that I am grateful. But I do not look forward to the email correspondence the FBI has collected becoming public. And I’d be very happy if they redacted any sexy-talk.
People’s private lives should be just that.
I really don’t care if a politician is cheating on his or her spouse. That’s their personal issue. Does it reflect on their personal character? Absolutely. Just as surely as cheating reflected on the personal character of Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. Maybe they had it easier because they didn’t have cell phones, email and Twitter. And they enjoyed a press corps that hadn’t yet allowed the cultural norms of Hollywood scandal-mongering to creep into political reporting. And their political opponents were probably astute enough to know about the hypocrites in their own ranks. Or at least they had the good sense not to fill the public’s head with trash. The 1988 Dukakis campaign, for instance, fired Donna Brazile after she encouraged reporters to look into rumors that George H.W. Bush was cheating. This came a month after the Dukakis folks got hit with the Willie Horton ad and they still pulled the punch.
But times have changed and we’ve suffered through the draining spectacle of the Clinton impeachment and the turmoil in the House that resulted in resignations by two subsequent House Speakers, one of them over an “extramarital affair.” (What a quaint euphemism for cheating).
There is little in life more private than a marriage and even those in public life should be able to draw the curtains on their own bedrooms. As Dan Savage has written time and again in response to unsatisfied spouses – and there seem to be a significant number of them writing him – the single biggest thing partners owe to each other is honesty. Whatever a couple wants to figure out (or lie about or ignore) is their business and none of mine, even if I voted for the cheating bastard.
And, sure, more generally, there is a case to be made that politicians who make “family values” a cornerstone of their public image are hypocritical if they cheat. But public approbation in that case is questionable. Every politician sends out mailers of them smiling with their family. The implicit and nearly universal message of a healthy, honest marriage is clear.
Greater hypocrisy is involved when closeted politicians rage against gay rights. That more clearly deserves to be exposed.
Then, of course, there are the rare times when a politician “hikes the Appalachian Trail” for days without telling their staff. Shirking basic responsibilities to go-a-cheating crosses the line into bad governance. We didn’t elect you to be faithful to your wife, but we did elect you to do your job.
In this latest case, it’s also ethically wrong to make secret sexy time with a not-your-spouse who also happens to be your biographer. And yes, there are national security and criminal implications, too. After all, this was the nation’s spy chief, not a Congressional back-bencher.
But the worst part is that this is going to waste a lot of Washington’s time when Washington should be focused on more important things. People need jobs, not gossip. We deserve a resolution to the endless fights over the federal budget, not breaking news alerts about cheating.
We would benefit greatly as a country from redrawing the lines of decorum when it comes to politicians’ sex lives. But I don’t think we can unring that Pavlovian bell. And I don’t think our cultural expectations around cheating or marriage will alter that much in the next few decades.
I can’t help but thinking that there are many politicians – men and women – who are cheating on their spouses and who are doing us a strange sort of service. They’re not posting pictures of themselves on the Internet. And they’re not exchanging a flurry of sexy and discoverable emails with their cheating other.
They’re probably being deeply, personally unethical. But they’re keeping the curtain drawn. And they’re not letting it interfere with their work, which is what we elected them to do.