Too Much Information

There’s no secret nothin’

It’s all on display

Cellophane City by Steve Forbert (1980)


Over the past year alone: John Edwards, Elliot Spitzer, David Paterson, Kwame Kilpatrick, Larry Craig, former Senator Edward Brooke, Gavin Newsom, and now Bristol Palin. People whose ill-managed sex lives got publicized because of their political roles, or, in the case of young Ms. Palin, because of her proximity to someone who has a political role.

It’s hard to be even-handed about this. Let’s face it, our gut reaction is largely a matter of whose ox is being gored at the moment. Ha! we are apt to say when it’s someone we dislike: I knew it! Rotten through and through! But when it’s someone we have respected before, we may say something more like: We have to be sophisticated about this, and distinguish between the public servant and the faithless husband/inattentive mom/bisexually torn spouse.We do so want politicians to be honest and admirable in all things! But let us be honest with ourselves: This is not necessarily our most admirable national trait. Our votes are often little more than moral fashion statements. We like to vote for politicians who affirm our ideal of ourselves – no matter how unrealistic the self-portrait. Whatever the state of our individual consciences and whatever the addictions, divorces and discords in our families, and however afflicted with religious doubt we may privately be, we like to vote for politicians who stand for “family values” and profess a strong faith. We vote, in other words, for the people we identify with in our fantasies about ourselves. In so doing, we are staking an inarticulate claim to be better people than we – or anyone else – really are. It is fascinating to note, for instance, that the divorce rate is highest in the Bible Belt, and highest there among the strongest “values voters” demographic: Southern Baptists.

Other peoples are less apt to vote this way. They vote their policies or their tribal identities or their economic self-interest. Mitterand’s mistress? Who cares? We want to know where he stands on the farm subsidy!It would help if we could accept that, whether we like it or not, randy behavior is inextricable from political leadership. Henry Kissinger put it well: “Power is a great aphrodisiac.” Consider the political lifestyle: the power to bestow patronage, a job which requires and enables large irregular and hard-to-account-for blocks of time outside the home, the pressure from lobbyists who only desire to please, and then add power’s aphrodisiac effect on others of which Kissinger spoke. How many of us could get through a term of office without straying?

We don’t have to like it, though there have been civilizations that do. (The Bible actually brags of Solomon’s three hundred concubines – not to mention his seven hundred legitimate wives.) But let’s be realistic about it, at least.

And, to continue in this realistic vein, let us acknowledge that the sexual peccadillos of politicians usually tell us comparatively little about the quality of the public service we receive from the perpetrators. FDR was, by most accounts, the pre-eminent 20th Century president, although he was unfaithful to his admirable wife Eleanor, and died in the presence of his mistress. JFK’s galvanizing leadership sent us to the moon and stiffened our spines against Communism, although it is likely that no other president, not even Harding, spent more time with doxies while in office. LBJ had a complicated record that included not only the disgrace of Vietnam but the triumph of the civil rights laws – and that complexity was mirrored in his marriage. And in the end, was Monica Lewinsky anything more than a terrible distraction from the largely successful Clinton presidency?

And look at the flip side: Richard Nixon was apparently faithful to Pat, and somehow we got Watergate, arguably the worst failure of presidential character until George W. Bush came along. And W. is to all appearances, as constant as the Northern Star when it comes to sex (these days at least) – and his is by common consent simply the worst presidency ever. So there it is: a politician’s sex life is generally a distraction. Deal with it.

And that realization is still really the easier part of our task. The harder part is coming to terms with how this has to play out in a world with both “values voters” and a National Enquirer.

Gone are the days when a Hugh Sidey covering the White House for Time might be perfectly in the know about JFK’s extracurricular activities – without ever publishing a word. That changed about the time of Gary Hart’s 1987 presidential run, doomed by revelations concerning Donna Rice and the good ship Monkey Business. We cannot go back, as there is no legal sanction against publicizing true facts about any politician’s life, and no commercial or social disincentive either. And there is no taboo against asking a politician about it to his face.

However, what has not changed is that no politician can fail to court “values voters.”

The upshot is the kind of moment we saw with John Edwards not so long ago, parrying questions from journalists who had clearly heard the rumors, asking him to confirm or disconfirm. There was no way for him to say “none of your business.” Had he done so, everyone would have accurately deemed it something close to an admission of guilt. It was their business, after all, by today’s reckoning. So Edwards had to tell the truth, which would have finished him, or to lie. Which a little bit later also finished him, because we then engaged in a national orgy of despising the man as much for his dishonesty as his disloyalty. We turn on the liar for his lies even if we would be broad-minded about same person in the role of adulterer.

But this is stupid. When a John Edwards or a Kwame Kilpatrick is carrying on an affair, or for that matter, a Bill Clinton or a Mark Foley is merely swiving interns for sport, a resort by the sinner to lies and denial is – must be – Standard Operating Procedure. Yet that kind of lie by itself really tells us little more about the politician than does the underlying misbehavior. Edwards and Clinton were good leaders while Kilpatrick was a thug, and Foley’s service undistinguished at best. Similar dishonesty, varying qualities of service.

That is not to minimize the harm lies do. Much of the poison in our national political culture is the result of deliberate lies told by politicos and their corps of spinmeisters, flacks, and kept journalists. Still, it is best to bear in mind that a lie to protect one’s privacy (regardless of which discreditable thing one might do in private) may be a little different from a lie about receiving payoffs, torturing detainees, or swift boats. There are lies and there are lies.

And in our brave new Cellophane City, we had better make that distinction, or we shall probably be depriving ourselves of some pretty good public servants. We cannot afford that.