Nothing captures people’s attention more then watching an elected official cry before the national media. The spectacle of South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, shedding tears, admitting to an adulterous affair and pleading for forgiveness, “I’ve been unfaithful to my wife,” captured all media attention throughout the country. He is separated from his wife and children and stepped down as chairman of the Republican Governors Association.
He joins his fellow Republican, Sen. John Ensign (NV), who admitted an adulterous affair last week and resigned as chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, the party’s leadership group in the Senate.
The revelations about the two adulterous affairs by self-righteous Republican Christian pols continue the sad saga of sex scandals that have become part of the American body politics. It also further erodes the all-but-bankrupt moral standing of the Republican party and further cuts the ranks of Republican worthies preening as potential 2012 presidential candidates.
In all likelihood, additional political hypocrites will be outed in sex scandals, becoming media fodder. (We’re still awaiting the outing of the recently married Gov. Charlie Crist [FL] who has been long rumored as a closeted homosexual.) Sadly, like the earlier episodes among Republican and Democrat pols, the Sanford and Ensign scandals are tawdry affairs lacking the spectacle of many of the earlier outings that marks American political history.
The political question is simple: Will Sanford and Ensign remain in office or be forced to resign? Their respective decisions will determine the extent to which the culture wars is over. In the age of Obama, adultery should no longer be illegal as it still is in many states, nor should it be immoral, a subject of shaming. Adultery, like all other sexual activities, should be a private matter, the concern of only those most intimately involved.
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Over the last few years, Americans have watched with amusement as one pol after another was outed for his wayward sexual ways. The sex scandal momentum began to build in 2006 when Mark Foley was outed and intensified as revelations about Dan Sherwood’s adultery came out; revelations about religious leaders Paul Crouch and Ted Haggard only made things worse for the moralistic right. The subsequent outings of Larry Craig and David Vitter in ’07 intensified the issue of scandalous sex among the political class. However, revelations about John Edwards and Eliot Spitzer as well as Vito Fossella and Tim Mahoney before the ’08 election, seemed to have little impact on the national election which saw a shift in the balance of political power to the Democrats.
Numerous scandals occurred during the Clinton presidency that culminated in his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky and the Impeachment follies of 1998. Outings involved Senators Bob Packwood (R-OR) and Daniel Inouye (D-HI) and Representatives Ken Calvert (R-CA), Charles Canady (R-FL), Mel Reynolds (D-IL), Helen Chenoweth (R-ID) and Dan Burton (R-IN). Under the Clinton halo, these scandals are likely little known or all long forgotten
Adultery is a shadow haunting the Christian right. The Moral Majority was founded in 1979 proclaiming the sacredness of marriage and pushing for a Constitutional Amendment sanctifying the family. The Reagan era witnessed increased divorce rates and numerous politicians caught up in out-of-wedlock liaisons. The most publicized scandals of the period, involving Sen. Gary Hart (D-CO) and Rep. John Jenrette (D-SC), reflected the adulterer’s sense of power as much as his hypocrisy. Other scandals involving Sen. Roger Jepsen (R-IA) and Reps. Thomas Evans (R-DL), Sue Myrick (R-NC) and Arlan Stangeland (R-MN) only intensified the moral hypocrisy of the Moral Majority.
Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority against a background of political sex scandals. In 1979, Rep. Robert Bauman (R-MD) was arrested for soliciting a 16-year-old gay male dancer and Robert Leggett (D-CA) revealed that he had fathered two out-of-wedlock children in an adulterous relation with a congressional secretary and had an affair with another female aide (who became his wife). In 1978, New York congressmen Fred Richmond was arrested for soliciting a 16-year-old African-American delivery boy and an undercover police officer. A few years earlier congressmen from across the country, including Wilbur Mills (D-AK) and Wayne Hays (D-OH) as well as John Young (D-TX) and Allan Howe (D-UT), were involved in front-page scandals that destroyed their reputations and forced them from office. The Moral Majority was formed to stem the breakdown of traditional values, values often broken by its own constituency.
These are but some of the scandals involving prominent politicians that have occurred over the last three decades. The recent announcement that Mimi Beardsley Alford, a retired New York church administrator, was publishing a memoir about her affair with John Kennedy while she was an intern, reminds us that once upon a time presidential peccadilloes were discreetly hidden by the press. This discretion was the norm during the 20th century so that the actual or alleged adulterous liaisons of Harding, FDR, Ike, JFK, Nixon, LBJ and Bush-the-Lesser were either denied or hidden. Clinton’s outing was more about politics that sexual morality.
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Sex scandals date from America’s earliest days. Those involving Washington, Jefferson, Franklin and Hamilton were fodder for both the colonial press and political mudslinging. Who recalls how “Old Hickory,” Andrew Jackson, was slammed when he married the “bigamist,” Rachel Robards Davidson, or how “Old Buck,” James Buchanan, was lambasted over his friendship with Sen. Rufus King?
However, it was during the post-Civil War era that sex scandals among American pols reached its zenith. Grover Cleveland’s affair with Mary Crofts Halpin became the basis for competing campaign chants during the 1884 presidential election: Republicans shouting, “Ma! Ma! Where’s my Pa!,” and Democrats rejoining, “He’s gone to the White House! Ha! Ha! Ha!”
Other 19th century scandals put to shame the puny indiscretions of our media-hungry age. The scandalous ways of congressmen William Breckinridge, William Taulbee, Arthur Brown and William Sharon make today’s affairs seem so banal.
Rep. Breckinridge (KY) had an adulterous affair and out-of-wedlock child with a college coed who he, after his wife died, refused to marry; taking him to court, the woman not only won the judgment but precipitated his electoral defeat. A reporter revealed Rep. Taulbee’s (KY) adulterous affair and, when the two crossed paths at the U.S. Capitol, they had a fistfight, and the reporter got a gun and shot and killed the congressman. Sen. Brown (UT) had a decade-long affair and out-of-wedlock child with a woman who he ultimately refused to marry; incensed, she shot and killed him, was put on trial and acquitted. Finally, we come the saga of Sen. Sharon (CA) who had an on-again, off-again “marriage” that went through more then a decade of federal and state court litigation, gun threats in court, the arrest of a federal judge and the final commitment of the apparent “wife” to a state mental institution for 45 years. It was the golden age of American political scandals.
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When Sanford took the podium of the South Carolina Statehouse and publicly admitted to his affair, he was participating in one of the oldest social rituals in American history. Initiated by the Puritans four centuries ago, the ritual of public shaming is a spectacle with two increasingly contradictory social functions.
First and foremost, a scandal is a morality tale, intended both to punish or shame the perpetrator and to educate the public as to what is socially acceptable. Second, over the last century, the scandal has changed, while maintaining elements of its original function, it has becoming a form of entertainment, intended to distract or fascinate the public. The shift in the social function of the scandal is a measure of how the moral values of the secular marketplace increasingly replace the power of religious tradition.
The long arm of Puritan moral vengeance hovers over public life today. Social shaming continues as the price paid by those caught refusing to abide by moral conventions. This vengeance has a particular meaning for those holding public office or in the public eye.
A revelation about a heretofore-secret sexual indulgence makes the perpetrator not only
subject to shame and ridicule, but unfit for public service. One pays a stiff price for keeping a secret. For those in the public eye, only those who reject (self- and public-) deception can escape the glare of the media hunt and, thus, refuse the centrifugal force of the scandal.
Sanford opposed Obama’s federal spending program and governs one of the most regressive state governments in the nation. Like Ensign, he is a moral hypocrite, deserving of all the shame he is experiencing. While championing Christian-Republic values, he expresses a personality,
not unlike that of other politicians, of an oversized ego fueled by an unquenchable libido.
Nearly all politicians caught in compromising, and often hypocritical, scandals succumb to public shame and quickly retreat from the media spotlight. Politicians from both major parties regularly run from embarrassing scandals.
It will be interesting to see, in the new Obama era, if Sanford and Ensign remain in office and weather-out their adulterous storms. Their decisions will be a clear indication of the status of the ongoing culture wars. If they flee, like so many before them, the moral tyranny of the Christian right persists. If, however, they stay in office and face down the moral criticisms, something morally new might be developing.
Unlike Larry Craig’s persistence, which was more a testament to self-denial then to the fact (testified to by many) that he had gay sexual encounters, Sanford and Ensign could reject the moral shaming associated with out-of-wedlock sexual involvement and put one more nail in the casket of the culture wars.
DAVID ROSEN is the author of “Sex Scandals America: Politics & the Ritual of Public Shaming” (Key, 2009); he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.