Sex, Lies & Trousergate: The Real Scandal Is Hypocrisy

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 Katha Pollitt
lipstick on collar photo
Photograph: iStock

From MORE'S 2008 package on politicians who cheat. Let's keep the spotlight of scandal where it belongs.

Politicians are the last people in America outside the military who are expected to live by 1950s marital rules: faithful husband; loyal, submissive, gamely smiling wife. It doesn’t seem to matter how often reality intrudes on the fantasy—remember Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich (twice!), David Vitter, Larry Craig, Rudy Giuliani (as well as FDR, Eisenhower, JFK . . . )? The faithful-husband myth is of a piece with all the other political family values myths that leave us shocked-shocked-shocked every time they explode in our faces. (Like the idea that immensely wealthy and powerful politicians are basically just folks. Or the one about how potential first ladies not only bake but also possess a treasured cookie recipe not to be found in any cookbook.)

Yes, I was as appalled as anyone by the John Edwards bombshell. His infidelity was hurtful to his wife, who is in the advanced stages of breast cancer. It also involved his staff and perhaps others in all sorts of deception and may have produced a “love child” who, along with her mother, will be a permanent fact in his children’s lives. And as an Edwards supporter, I’m enraged that he would risk his presidential campaign for sex.

Still, there’s something equally reckless about a system that sidelines important voices for failings that have nothing to do with public life. John Edwards may have been a jerk, but as long as he didn’t misuse campaign funds to support his mistress, he’s not a criminal—and he did have the best campaign proposal for universal health care.

Oddly, it’s a fresh “scandal” from the other side of the aisle that may actually—finally!—start dragging our expectations about political family life into the twenty-first century. It is quite astonishing to hear longtime ferocious enemies of working mothers—Eagle Forum founder Phyllis Schlafly, for example, who’s spent her entire life trying to keep women in the kitchen—praise Sarah Palin, vice presidential hopeful, governor of Alaska and mother of five, as a feminine role model.

Even more intriguing, Palin’s pregnant 17-year-old daughter, Bristol, receives nothing but compassion and good wishes from the politicians, preachers and pundits who usually blame teen pregnancy for every social problem under the sun. It will be enlightening to see if this sudden rush of tolerance is merely a political tactic, or if it signals real change.

We’ll never get rid of sexual shenanigans, inside or outside politics. In fact, as women get more power and autonomy, it’s far more likely that they’ll join the carnival than that men will stay home with a good book. And we may never ever agree, either, about how powerful women like Palin should balance work, family and moose-hunting. But here’s my proposal: If a politician uses his (or her) spouse and children as campaign props, then that part of his life is fair game if the truth doesn’t match the pretty picture. Ditto—double ditto—if he secretly indulges himself while attacking others’ sexual rights and liberties in the name of family values.

But if we focus on hypocrisy (rather than on private indiscretions that are really none of our business), we might just keep the spotlight of scandal where it belongs: on those who don’t practice what they preach—and legislate—for the rest of us.

Katha Pollitt is a columnist for The Nation, and the author of Learning to Drive: And Other Life Stories.


Daphne Merkin on America's "national naïveté."

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

Susan Cheever: Is Sex Addiction to Blame?

Naomi Wolf on why politicians shouldn't be afraid to seek therapy.

Patricia J. Williams on the dangerous distration of sex and scandal.


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First Published Wed, 2009-04-29 20:04

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