Sex, Sin & the 2012 Election

Monday, Feb. 20th, was President’s Day 2012, only nine months until the national elections.  It will be a critical election, a choice between two apparently different ways to address the crisis of capitalism now besetting the U.S.  It will come down to a choice of the least worst: between Republicans (working for the banks and other special interests) seeking to imposing punitive austerity and Democrats (working for the banks and other special interests) who are simply muddling along.

The watchword for the 2012 election is jobs, jobs, jobs.  Culture-war issues, “values,” are suppose to be less important this year then in 2010 or 2008.  Yet, they keep raising their ugly heads.  First, it was abortion choice and marriage equality; then it was pledges of marital fidelity; then it was extra-marital infidelities; now its Catholic bishops seeking to police sexual intimacy.

Each of the four remaining Republican candidates make periodic pilgramages to a schrine of Christian devotion, taking the high-profile PR opportunity to proclaim that they are more of a Christian conservative then the next guy.

Amdist this political climate the latest frothy tale of yet another sexual exploit by John F. Kennedy has captured tabloid headlines.  Mimi Alford’s recently-released memoir, Once Upon a Secret: My Affair with President John F. Kennedy and Its Aftermath (Random House), combined with a primetime NBC interview by Meredith Vieira and the accompanying media attention, has made JFK’s sexual exploits the talk of the nation.

In this election season, it has rekindled a questioned that has haunted national politics since the nation’s founding: How “moral” does a president have to be?  Or, put a different way, could Kennedy be elected today?

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Kennedy once allegdly complained, “I get a migraine headache if I don’t get a strange piece of ass every day.”  The illicit sexual conduct involving the rich, powerful and famous was once discretely hidden, public secrets often alleged but never confirmed.  The press accepted limits to how much they could report on the goings-on of those with power or influence.  Thus, it was inappropriate to discuss FDR’s polio and extra-marital relations or Ike’s wartime intimacy with Kay Summersby.

Most remarkable, JFK’s extra-marital adventures went unreported.  The list of women who he ostensibly had sex with keeps growing.  The recent revelation by Mimi (Beardsley) Alford adds to the earlier allegation about his out-of-wedlock child with Mary Evelyn Bibb Worthington.  These add to stories of his trysts with actresses Marilyn Monroe and Angie Dickinson; Inga Arvad, a Danish journalist; the stripper, Blaze Starr; Judith Exner Campbell, mistress to mob boss Sam Giancana; and White House secretaries Priscilla Weir and Jill Cowan, who he referred to as “Fiddle” and “Faddle.”

The nation’s most celebrated public birthday party was for JFK at Madison Square Garden on May 19, 1962.  It is long remembered for featuring the hyper-eroticized movie goddess, MM, singing the most salacious version of “Happy Birthday Mr. President” ever performed.  The only one missing from the festivities was Mrs. JFK, Jackie.  Such a public spectacle could not happen today.

[The song —]

Media discretion also applied to the politically powerful.  The homoerotic intimacy between J. Edgar Hoover, the nation’s toughest, most masculine cop, and his “life partner,” Clyde Tolson, was hidden during the Boss’ reign.  Today, their intimacy is a ho-hum sub-plot of a major Hollywood release, J. Edgar, staring Academy-Award winner Leonardo DiCaprio.  Surely, something has changed with regard to America’s moral values.

Not long ago the sins of the mighty, like an illicit sexual indulgence or marital infidelity, remained a private, hidden matter.  Now, a politician’s indiscretions quickly become the fodder of mass-market gossip, instantaneous shared through an increasing array of media formats, uniting the nation in a common spectacle.  Last year, Reps. Anthony Weiner and Chris Lee got burned playing with the fire of narcissistic display; this year, Gingrich carries on, sheading his past like a snake sheds its skin.

Political scandals have become like summer showers, momentarily blowing up, followed by a downpour of moral judgment, and then the sun comes out and all is forgotten.  The scandal happens, the media pours on the color commentary and innuendo, and (after an appropriate time and sufficient mea culpa) the rehabilitated pol is back on stage.  Mark Sanford, Eliot Spitzer and, most especially, Gingrich are, again, in the game.

The “rehabilitation” of men who are outed for engaging in what is considered immoral behavior is a measure of just how far the boundaries of moral order have shifted.  More telling, Gingrich got 243,000 votes in the South Carolina primary, including from Tea Party and evangelical folk.  And this in spite of the fact that everyone knew he is a serial philanderer.  What does this tell us about the relationship between morality and politics in the election of 2012?

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One of the great moments in the 2012 Republican presidential campaign was when Herman Cain endorsed Gingrich.  Allegations of Cain’s extra-marital escapades had broken only a few weeks earlier, but they sunk his presidential bid; while Gingrich, in his famous shoot-out with CNN’s John King, turned his dubious past into a virtue.  One can only wonder if Gingrich has tougher skin or if “immorality,” when linked to a black candidate, kills a candidacy?

Gingrich’s showing in the CNN debate and his support in the SC primary suggest that sexual morality is not a principal issue in the 2012 campaign.  A woman’s right to an abortion remains the only lightning-rod issue being pushed among Republcian conservatives and candidates; gay marriage and teen sex have essentially disappeared.

The issue of abortion took an unexpected turn with the recent controversy over the Komen Foundation’s defunding of Planned Parenthood; Komen reversed itself, recommitting to Planned Parenthood and the principal backer of the failed measure, the anti-choice activist, Karen Handel, resigned.  If this is an indication of how the issue of sex is to be fought out in the 2012 election, the Christian right is really floundering.

In a similar spirit of election-year fictitious moral outrage, the Republican Congressional leadership and three of the Republican presidential candidates (i.e., Gingrich, Romney and Santorum) have been huffing-and-puffing in support of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ opposition to the Obama administration decision to require employer health insurance plans, included those of religious organizations like Catholics, to include support for birth control. (The bishops never mention how much federal monies they get to fulfill their “mission.”)  The right is desperate for a moral issue to galvanize conservative voters and this might be the one.

Gingrich, a reborn Catholic, declared: “This is a tremendous infringement of religious liberty. Every time you turn around the secular government is shrinking the rights of religious institutions in America.”  And the grand flip-flopper, Romney, went so far as calling religious freedom America’s first right, intentionally falsefying the First Amendent.  It identifies a handful of anchoring rights, including prohibing the establishment of a state religion as well as the rights of speech, press and assembly.  Nowhere in the Amendment is religion distinguished as a “first right.”  Missing from the pronoucement of these high-minded pols is mention of the role of the Catholic Bishops in attempting to coverup the pedophile scandal that rocking the Church.

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The 2012 Republican presidential campaign is marked by a pecular reliance of pledges, personal moral testimants of commitment.  Their most widely reported one, “A Pledge to America,” promised to halt an increase in the federal debt and almost torpedoed the government.

However, a number of plegdes concern sex and they are illustrative of how morality has become captive to the rightwing political agenda.

“The Declaration of Dependence Upon Marriage and Family,” popularly known as the Marriage Vow, was introducd last summer as the Republican race was taking shape.  It is a 14-point pledge calling for candidates to denounce same-sex marriage, pornography, same-sex military accommodations and forms of Islamic law.

The pledge insists that “enduring marital fidelity between one man and one woman protects innocent children, vulnerable women, the rights of fathers, the stability of families and the liberties of all American citizens.”  When introduced, it was immediately endorsed by former candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) and former Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA).  However, Romney and Paul refused to endorse it.

Within days of its release, the pledge faced widespread criticism.  One challenge involved its moral hypocrisy.  Its call for marital fidelity put into question the candidacy of thrice-married Gingrich.  In an artful dodge to square the circle, the pledge’s proponent, a dubious Iowa group, the Family Leader, formerly the Iowa Family Policy Center, grandfathered Gingrich in as one who had “fallen short” in the past, but now was clean.  Gingrich endoresd it.

More troubling was its claim that a black slave “was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than was an African-American baby born after the election of the USA’s first African-American president.”  This clearly ignorant and racist statement drew widespread criticism from liberals and even conservative commentators.

The pledge failed to acknowledge that slaves were considered private property, 3/5th a person, forbidden from marrying (especially after slave importation ended in 1808) and were often sold at auction, separated from their family members.   Mounting a hurried retreat, Bachmann quickly issued an apology for the Family Leader, acknowledging the false historical references.  Faced with such criticism, the Marriage Vow faded from the political scene.

Many of those who’ve signed on to the Marriage Vow also support the Susan B. Anthony Pledge.  It commits politicians to appoint antiabortion cabinet officers and cut off federal financing to Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers.  Guess whose signed on?  The usual suspects: Gingrich, Paul, Romney and Santorum.

Morality In Media, a conservative group, pushed a new pledge last fall, the “War on Illegal Pornography” – not sure what “legal” porn is, but that’s another matter.   It called for politicians to commit to strict enforcement of obscenity laws.  And three of the four Republican candidates, Gingrich, Romney and Santorum, immediate signed up.

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The watchword for the 2012 election is jobs, jobs, jobs.  Culture-war issues, “values,” are less important this year then in 2010 or 2008.  Each of the four remaining Republican candidates make periodic pilgramages to a schrine of Christian devotion, taking the high-profile PR opportunity to proclaim that they are more of a Christian conservative then the next guy.

Most revealing, the issue of values (as reflected in abortion and gay marriage) does not drive the 2012 election.  Last April, the Barna Group released findings from a public-opinion survey it conducted regarding the issues that mattered to religious Americans with regard to the presidential election.  The top four concerns were:

§  health care (64%)

§  tax policies (60%)

§  terrorism (50%) and

§  employment policies (50%).

The second tier of four concers were:

§  immigration policies (45%)

§  education policy (44%)

§  wars in the Middle East (43%) and

§  America’s dependence upon foreign oil (38%).

The four concerns that were the least likely to influence how they would vote were:

§  domestic poverty policies (37%)

§  abortion (27%)

§  environmental policy (26%) and

§  gay marriage (24%).

“Values” are not what they used to be.

* * *

The media accomodation to politician’s sexual indiscrations ended on July 18, 1969, the night Ted Kennedy took the ill-fated car ride with Mary Jo Kopechne in Chappaquiddick, MA.  The Kennedy scandal represented the moral crisis of traditional American hush-hush political values.

This value system found expression not in what occurred, whether an accident or not, but in the need to cover it up in order to preserve a political legacy. It was a value system that was challenged by the 1960s’ cultural and political crises and a new type of of headline-grapbbing scandal journalism.

This gentlemen’s-agreement value system collapsed amidst a wave of scandals involving politicians during the 1970s.  Democratic Congressmen were undone by scandal. Among these worthies Wilbur Mills (D-AK) and Wayne Hays (D-OH) as well as John Young (D-TX) and Allan Howe (D-UT).  Each was driven from office.

Three decades later, during George W. Bush’s tenure, Republican politicians succumb to a similar fate.  In 2006, the sexual exploits of Mark Foley (R-FL) and Don Sherwood (R-PA) captivated the nation.  In 2007, it was the goings-on of David Vitter (R-LA) and Larry Craig (R-ID) that undermined Republian claims to moral superiority.

The moral crisis facing the Republcians came home with a vengence with Obama’s victory in 2008.  Prior to the 2010 midterm election, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) committed the party to a “zero-tolerance policy” regarding ethical, and especially sexual, transgressions.  When, in early 2011, word and image of Rep. Chris Lee’s dubious hanky-panky spread through the media, Republican-party bosses, especially Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), ordered Lee to resign and, as a good foot soldier, he followed orders.  (For those with short memories, Lee fled from office when word got out that he had e-mailed a snapshot of his bare macho-man chest to a prospective illicit love object.)

When, later last year, the Democrats found themselves embroiled in a similar scandal with Anthony Weiner, the Democratic leadership, led by Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), declared the need to launch an ethics inquiry, ultimately forcing Weiner from office.

In 2012, the experiences of Cain and Gingrich speak to how divided the Republican party and its hardcore conservative base appear to be with regard to sex.  While holding dearly to culture-war values, for the base are, after all, “value voters,” values are no longer the political weapon they once were.  Something deeper, more proufound it taking place across the country

America is in the midst of a 4th sexual revolution, this one pushing further the revolutions of the 1840s, 1920s and 1960s.  A handful of examples illustrate the depth and breath of this change.  Pornography is a booming, $10-plus billion business, including print, TV/cable, DVD and online service.  The 1970s swinging scene is back; NASCA International, a swingers association, identifies 168 swingers clubs throughout the U.S.  Gentlemen’s clubs are no longer limited to Las Vegas; TUSCL, a website of strip clubs, lists 2,800 operating throughout the country.  Explicit adult “safe sex” clubs for gays and straights operate throughout the country; specialized fetish clubs catering to b&d, s&m and other once-perverse tastes operate in many major cities, often hosted by a professional dominatrix.   And, most intriguing, sex toys, costumes and lotions are a multi-million dollar business, with Amazon the nation’s largest purveyor; such Passion Parties are popular among religious conservatives.

For all the ranting of the religious right and Republican politicians, something is happening in American.  Conservative forces have been incredibly effective promoting anti-choice, anti-marriage equality and anti-sex ed legislation in state houses throughout the country, often implement model bills supplied by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

But on a deeper, more fundamental level they are losing the war with regard to the more intimate values and sexual practices taking place between consenting adults.  One must work to turn this change in real values into a new political campaign that is based on personal, informed choice and practice.  Only this will ultimately defeat the puritan right.

David Rosen is the author of Sex Scandals America:  Politics & the Ritual of Public Shaming and is a regular contributor to CounterPunch, Brooklyn Rail and Filmmaker.  He can be reached at

David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at; check out