Sex, Lies & Trousergate: An Affair to Forget

Last week former general David H. Petraeus was a war hero reinvented as the Director of the CIA; this week he has resigned his position and is more famous for committing adultery than for being a four-star general. His sudden fall raises the perennial question: Why do men in power keep cheating, especially in this, the 21st century, when technology and the 24/7 news cycle practically guarantee that they'll not only be caught but memed without mercy? Is it just a dangerous combination of high-test narcissism and boys-will-be-boyness? In 2008, in the wake of l’affaires Edwards and Spitzer, MORE asked six smart writers for their sharpest takes on the psychology of the high-level cheater. Why does he do it? Will he ever learn? And are we wrong to care?

by Patricia J. Williams
lipstick on collar photo
Photograph: iStock

From MORE's 2008 package on politicians who cheat. Yes, sex scandals sell. But what are they distracting us from?

Sure, testosterone is powerful, but how can these men not anticipate the certainty that YouTube’s trillions will soon be watching? If the question is “Why do politicians cheat?,” stupidity has to be part of the answer. Then there’s the thrill of the gamble. But that sounds too easy; it can’t be all that thrilling to risk your career and the love of your family. I think it must be a kind of escapism, related to thrill seeking, but darker and more purposeful, with a substantial dollop of anger. Maybe what Larry Craig, Bill Clinton, Eliot Spitzer and an endless trail of repentant evangelical ministers have in common is an unacknowledged desire to kick public life in the teeth. Think about it. You’re a senator; you’re a governor; you’re leading a congregation of thousands; you’ve appeared on Oprah; you’ve run for president. Yet you decide to pander for sex in an airport bathroom; you hire a prostitute with pub-lic funds; you snap thong in front of the not-so-secretive Secret Service.

A friend chalks it up to power-heady male hubris. Maybe. But I think it’s more like coded suicide. These men must want to end it all and trot off to work at a post office or insurance company where no one cares what they do. They must envy those who walk around with bad haircuts, dressed in Bermuda shorts and black socks. They just want to die and be reborn in another, more private life.

When I think of John Edwards in particular, I feel sadness. Of all the recent transgressions, his begs to be sheltered as a private tragedy. He and his wife have endured the death of a child—which puts untold stresses on a marriage—as well as her multiple bouts of cancer. Yes, the public might need to know if a politician is sleeping with a spy and leaving classified documents in her bedroom. Otherwise, I just don’t think having sex with someone who’s not your spouse warrants the disapprobation we expend, so often exceeding the scrutiny of far more politically relevant questions, such as whether Dick Cheney spent the last eight years in bed with the oil companies.

If Edwards’s political career is over, the only bit of the public’s “right to know” that interests me is who’s going to take over his stewardship of anti-poverty issues. I am equally convinced it’s none of my business when Sarah Palin’s teenage daughter gets pregnant, despite the delicious temptation to use it to interrogate Palin on her abstinence-only stance. But while it’s fair to question a policy by using data about its effectiveness, it’s not necessary to use Bristol Palin as its poster child. Data ought to be the compelling source of suasion in our political debates.

Yes, sex and soap opera sell. But ultimately our obsessive concern with our leaders’ sex lives is demeaning. It degrades our political process with the distraction of cheap drama. And that makes us vulnerable in a twenty-first-century world where real politics is still about real matters of life and real matters of death.

Patricia J. Williams is a professor at Columbia Law school, a colmnist for The Nation and the author of Open House: Of Family, Friends, Food, Piano Lessons and the Search for a Room of My Own.

More:

Katha Pollitt on why hypocrisiy is the bigger scandal.

Daphne Merkin on America's "national naïveté."

Judith Thurman's open letter to husbands considering a run for political office.

Originally published in the November 2008 issue

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