They’re back! Some of America’s most celebrated recent sex sinners have begun to come out from the shadow of shame and reassert themselves onto the public stage. Their rehabilitation illustrates how scandal has been transformed from moral condemnation into just another reality-TV show, another media distraction.
John Edwards, fresh from separating from his wife, Elizabeth, and (finally!) admitting to fathering an out-of-wedlock child, was recently spotted on a do-gooder junket to earthquake-devastated Haiti. Eliot Spitzer, forced from office because of his compulsive affairs with prostitutes, now regularly makes the rounds of TV and radio talk shows lambasting the half-hearted Congressional efforts to regulate financial speculation. Even Ted Haggard, the defrocked Evangelical preacher who was exposed having engaged a homosexual prostitute and snorting drugs, has reemerged from his years wandering the Arizona desert as the subject of a new HBO tell-all documentary.
Sin is a shriveling religious category. It once signified (and for some still does) a profound violation of a moral value system, a devine commandment. Once upon a time knowingly committing a sin could result in not only deep feelings of guilt and shame, but public ridicule, banishment, flogging and even death. This is no longer the case.
Today, sin has lost its bite. Corporal punishment has been replaced by the spectacle of nonstop media hounding. Public shaming has become a form of entertainment, meant to distract or fascinate the public. It is a 21st century gladiator sport with the camera replacing the lion. The sinner can often overcome the (momentary) hounding by the morality police, the vulture media, and reestablished his (and far less often her) often-privileged place in society.
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America has witnessed repeated waves of sex scandals involving politicians and other social worthies. The most recent wave began at the height of the culture wars in the months preceding the 2006 mid-term Congressional elections and played a small but important role in the Republicans loss of the House. A follow-up wave took place around the time of the ’08 election, but had less impact on the election outcome.
Among the most scandalous of the ’06 parade of scandals involved Representatives Mark Foley (R-FL) and Don Sherwood (R-PA), Reverends Paul Crouch and Haggard, and pundit Bill Bennett. They helped undermine Bush’s “compassionate conservative” moral posturing, setting the stage for the Democrats electoral victory.
Foley’s deep, dark secret involved his erotic obsession with what psychiatrists identify as ephebophilia, the adoration of youthful lads — and which may or may not have involved sexual contact. Once exposed through a series of indiscreet emails to Congressional pages, Foley was banished from Congress’ hallowed-halls. Sherwood was outed when his five-year extra-marital affair came to light after his lover called the police to his DC apartment claiming that she was hiding in the bathroom and a victim of a physical attack.
Crouch, a former televangelist preacher and president of Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), was outed in an adulterous affair with a former male TBN employee and a $425,000 hush-payment to his lover. Bennett, the self-serving, self-righteous hypocrite who, as the author of The Book of Virtues, turned “virtue” into a dirty word. He was revealed to have lost $8 million gambling and to have maintained a long term clandestine liaison with a buff Las Vegas dominatrix, Mistress Lee, his “beautiful domme muse mistress.”
The scandals of the ’08 period involved both Republicans and Democrats, including Senators David Vitter (R-LA) and Larry Craig (R-ID), John Edwards and Eliot Spitzer. The bi-partisan and mutli-sexual nature of these scandals neutralized illicit sex as an election issue.
Vitter, a Bible-thumping good-old-boy, was outed nationally when he was identified as a client of the professional services offered by Deborah Jeane Palfrey, who ran an up-scale escort service and was dubbed by the tabloids, the “DC Madam” (whose clients included the shoe-fetishist, Dick Morris) became public. Locals in the know were aware of rumors that he was a regular at the New Orleans’ Canal Street Brothel run by Jeanette Maier, a former madam, and had an ongoing relationship with a New Orleans prostitute, “Wendy Cortez,” with whom he allegedly had an out-of-wedlock child. (He vehemently denies these allegations.)
Craig was caught in a bathroom sting operation soliciting an undercover male police officer; after initially pleading guilty, he attempted to deny the charge and his initial admission but was ultimately convicted, accepting 1-year of probation. And Bill Bennett blathers on regularly on his talk show “Morning in America” and CNN’s “State of the Union” unphased by his earlier misdeeds. However, the outings of Spitzer and Edwards led to their initial retreat from the political spotlight.
The major ’08 scandals involved both Republicans and Democrats and straight and gay sexual liaisons. These scandals tended to cancel each other out as a political issue, although it is noteworthy that the Democratic sinners were forced off the political center stage while the Republicans held onto their offices; Craig finished his term and retired and Vitter still holds his Senate seat. Subsequently, scandals involving John Ensign (R-NV) and Mark Sanford (R-Gov, SC) are noteworthy because the sinner men remain in office.
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After facing much initial media harassment and personal (and familial) embarrassment, most highly visible sex sinners return to the public spotlight. These pols and other social worthies go through a pretty standard rehabilitation process. First, there is shock and often denial; this is followed by the pol making a public mia culpa at which his wife is often dragged before the media glare; and then the pol either abdicates his office and retreats to private life, often to the safety of rehabilitation oasis for needed therapy, or holds fast to his office feeling that a public apology is a sufficient price to pay.
The rehabilitation process experienced by some of the sinner men is instructive.
Mark Foley is back in the game. When he was outed for sending salacious emails to Congressional pages, Foley drew upon the oldest cons in the sex sinner’s playbook to explain his behavior: he was molested by a clergyman when he was a teenager and suffered from a drinking problem. Shortly after giving up his House seat, he headed off to a nearby rehab clinic to confront his demons. Subsequently, he got into the real estate business in Palm Beach, FL, finally officially came out as gay and is now in a formal relationship. Last September, the ex-Congressman became host of a local AM radio call-in show, “Foley on Politics.”
In November ’08, Rev. Ted was booted from his pastorship of the New Life Church and, with wife and family in tow, left his Colorado Springs, CO, home to find redemption in the wilds of Arizona. Undergoing a round of intense therapy and working, first, as a traveling insurance salesman and then as an agent for a commission sales company, Mortgage Protection Group, he now claims to be “restored.” He defines himself as a “heterosexual with issues” who has rid the homosexual demon from his heart and made a renewed commitment to his wife, Gayle.
In the new HBO doc, “The Trials of Ted Haggard,” directed by Nancy Pelosi’s daughter, Alexandra, Haggard alleges that an employee of his father molested him when he was in the 2nd grade. He also admits that in the 7th grade he fooled around sexually with other preteen boys. In anticipation of the airing of the film, Haggard appeared on “Larry King Live” and admitted to a 2006 homosexual encounter with a 20-year-old male New Life volunteer. According to the man, “[Haggard] pretty much asked me if it was OK if he masturbated in front of me or masturbated in the bed next to me. … I told him no, it would make me really uncomfortable. But he grabbed a bottle of lotion and started masturbating.”
To fully leverage the media opportunities associated with the HBO airing, Ted’s wife, Gayle, released her memoir “Why I Stayed: The Choices I Made in My Darkest Hour” in January. While a self-justification for staying with her man, Mrs. Haggard reveals that her hubby had a still earlier homosexual encounter in an adult bookstore.
Larry Craig served out his tenure and retired to a bucolic life in Idaho. Shortly after leaving office in January, Craig formed New West Strategies LLC, a consulting firm, with his former chief of staff, Mike Ware. According to the Idaho Statesman, Craig gave generous retirement bonuses to his top staff and Ware received an estimated $27,000.
While Craig might be gone from the Washington spotlight, the spotlight doesn’t seem to want to leave his particular scandalous episode. According to the Washington Post, the playwright Tim Kirkman is completing a fictionalized play titled — what else? — “Wide Stance” about the former senator misadventures. A debut reading in Craig’s hometown of Boise was scheduled for January at the home of former DC power couple, Liz Wolf and her husband, Bill Blahd.
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The recent publications of personal memoirs by Elizabeth Edwards, “Resilience,” and Jenny Sanford, “Staying True,” may suggest a change in the attitude of the political wife and her sinner-man husband. These books break with the tradition of a wife standing with her man represented by Gayle Haggard. Equally important, they disavow the sad spectacle of wives from Hillary Clinton to Silda Spitzer, from Dina Matos McGreevey to Suzanne Craig standing pathetically before the media spectacle and absorbing her hubby’s public humiliation.
Sinner men are a function of the American political system: Power attracts those coveting power. It seems that to be a politician, let alone a world-class celebrity or sports figure, one must be driven by a deep psychological need for stardom. This profound narcissism is lubricated by the real power, money and influence that such a position fosters. This sense of narcissistic power also seems to be accommodated by a equally profound sense of denial, a belief that no matter what sexual “sin” the sinner might engage in, he will neither be caught nor, if caught, pay a personal or political price for his indiscretions.
However many sinner men are exposed, one thing we can be sure of is that others will follow.
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.