Sex, Lies & Trousergate: Time for America to Grow Up?

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 Daphne Merkin
lipstick on collar photo
Photograph: iStock

From MORE'S 2008 package on politicians who cheat. Let's stop cultivating our "national naiveté."

At some point between Gary Hart, say, and Monicagate, you’d think we would have overdosed on these salacious tidbits, grown weary of water-cooler-worthy but ultimately unilluminating stop-the-presses news of sexual hanky-panky among the governing classes. The paradigm, after all, is fairly unvarying in its tragicomic coloration, starting with the professing of high moral values on the part of an elected official, then a raft of heated denials of the alleged malfeasance, and finally a tattered and all-too-human saga featuring call girls, cross-dressing or an unacknowledged child out of wedlock. We’ve seen how this train derails, many times.

So how can it be that we jumped up and down when we first heard about John Edwards’s extramarital affair with Rielle Hunter? Instead of giving it a jaded yawn or, perhaps, emulating our European counterparts, with their persistent lack of interest in public figures’ peccadilloes, we reacted, yet again, with feigned shock, horror and condemnation. For it’s got to be feigned—at least in part—by this time in our national collective history. How long can the term puritanical be automatically twinned with American character, steeped as we are in the reality show underside of American life? It sounds more and more like a failed insight, a reflexive answer to the question: Why do we seem more an excitable nation of vestal virgins than of thoughtful adults who recognize that human beings are infinitely complex mammals, stalked by ambivalence despite our best intentions?

Given the timing of Edwards’s affair, when his wife was between bouts of cancer, there was something particularly egregious about the story—just as there is about every tawdry instance, whether it be a skein of bald-faced lies, an insistent image of marital fidelity or a long-running scenario of deceit.

With Edwards’s pretty face and single-minded pursuit of power, it was easy to assume that he was a family values man through and through, sufficiently fueled by his happy home life not to be in need of compensatory diversions. Then, too, there was some-thing straight-on about Elizabeth Edwards that encouraged us to think her immune to such timeworn and humiliating betrayals. But, as her husband admitted in a vainglorious mea culpa—sounding as if he’d just emerged from a tutorial on the pathology of sexual wayfarers—he had become “egocentric and narcissistic” somewhere en route.

Spousal responses aren’t always useful cues for the rest of us, and Elizabeth’s could be the most opaque yet. She didn’t appear with him for his network confession (a possible first for a political wife). She praised him on (for his honesty) and attacked the media, presumably to forestall its thunderous indignation. If Elizabeth viewed John’s display of contrition as adequate (and if we believed her, and didn’t feel we needed to do the outrage thing on her behalf)—maybe that was our signal to move on.

In which case, let’s stop cultivating our national naiveté about the discrepancy between public and private faces. We can join the rest of the globe in dumping all that Victorian-bred ingenuousness along with other confinements of the Victorian empire. Or perhaps it has suited our self-image as a superpower to insist that it’s the exception, not the rule, when Americans fail to take the moral high road: We remain innocent and eternally hopeful, unlike the citizens of more cynical countries, like France.

Any which way, the hoopla strikes me as both inauthentic and unexamined, suggesting that the heart of the Yankee soul is not so much puritan as puerile. It would become us to act like grown-ups someday—sooner rather than later.

Daphne Merkin, a novelist and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, has written for many publications, on subjects ranging from Freud to fashion.


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Susan Cheever: Is Sex Addiction to Blame?

Patricia J. Williams on sex, scandal and the danger of these distractions.

Katha Pollitt on why hypocrisiy is the bigger scandal.

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First Published Wed, 2009-04-29 19:44

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