I have a recurring nightmare in which I watch CNN break an Obama sex scandal.
I think there are two reasons for this.
#1) Like many other kids of my generation, Clinton’s impeachment trial was my introduction to politics (what could the President possibly have spilled on Monica’s dress to cause such a fuss?) I was more affected by that circus than I knew at the time, and I have a fundamental dread of seeing it play out again.
#2) I care about my country and fellow citizens, and if Obama was ever caught in the smallest sexual indiscretion, we’d be utterly paralyzed until global warming, terrorists or Medicare payments killed us all. (Also Rush Limbaugh would explode with glee and his toxic innards would melt our faces off).
Clinton. Spitzer. Vitter. Sanford. Foley. Edwards. Craig. Schwarzenegger. Weiner (to name a few). Politicians’ sex scandals are as perennial as highway construction back-ups and almost as annoying. Let’s put aside the question of why they do it (I’m sick of the pontification on the soullessness of powerful white males following the Dominique Strauss-Kahn debacle): as Weiner’s dirty photos saturate the media today, the politician whose sex scandal will break sometime in July is probably disrobing in front of his iPhone right now while Weiner’s apology plays on the office TV.
I’m more interested in the question of whether these scandals really do render someone unfit for government office. The current speculation on GOP Presidential candidates has brought this question into sharper focus, as pundits discard Gingrich as a viable contender because of his marital history, and Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels refuses to run, we speculate, because his wife left him for another dude before returning to marry Daniels again. Newsweek polled Republican-leaning voters for a recent feature on the qualities desired in the “perfect” GOP candidate. Of 30 listed qualities, “Morally Unimpeachable” is number two, beating out “shrewd legislator” (number six) and “clear set of political beliefs” (number 19). Of course, as Weiner and countless others prove, political sex scandals are by no means limited to Republicans (though Democrats more often at least escape the label of overt hypocrite, that most dreaded of American epithets, because they haven’t devoted their careers to opposing gay rights or defending the sanctity of marriage).
My parents’ explanation of Clinton’s failure made a big impression on me. “Always remember that the Oval Office belongs to all Americans, including you,” they said. “Presidents have a responsibility to use it respectfully.” Even more ominously, they added, “how can a person keep any promises to his country, if he can’t even keep a promise to his wife?”
But as life has become an unending parade of lawmakers hounded from their posts for illicit sexual liaisons, and otherwise interesting or competent Presidential candidates won’t seek the nomination because their marital history is less than perfect, I think we have a problem. Of course, some scandals do give legitimate grounds for an ouster or legal action – solicitation of minors or sexual harassment, for instance. Even when a scandal seems like it’s purely limited to the politician’s sordid personal life, as in cases of simple adultery or illegitimate children, investigators rush to prove that campaign or office funds were somehow used to further the affair, rendering the politician’s actions not just unsavory but illegal. But how many of these politicians unfairly suffer the death of their professional credentials because of personal faults? Who among us doesn’t have something in our romantic or sexual past we wouldn’t want others to know?
Perhaps the never-ending pageant of political sex scandals inures my sense of outrage when the latest sexter or prostitute-frequenter declares how very sorry he is. Maybe I don’t care as much as I should. But I don’t understand why politicians’ personal indiscretion, like an extramarital affair or ill-judged text messages, should consume our attention. Surely there are better uses for our money and media, when the US faces a crisis on every side.
I live my life by certain standards, and abide by my marriage vows. But I’m not consumed when others do not, and lately I feel like I’m in the minority. I see many of these politicians the same way I see co-workers whose ill-advised sex or intra-office infidelity comes to light. We don’t have to be best friends. But I don’t doubt their ability to continue doing their jobs.
And so we come to the poll. (Finally).
I’m not saying that we should become like the Italians, tolerating years of Silvio Berlusconi. But I think that if Newsweek Republicans were to find their “Morally Unimpeachable” candidate, they’d have to nominate someone who is not of this earth. And that’s probably why I’ll keep on having that nightmare.