Why you should care
Because “Ask not what your country can do for you, but who you can do in your country” is a motto more befitting some of our political leaders.
Part of “The Seven Deadly Sins of American Politics,” a special series in which OZY’s Sean Braswell examines the literal and metaphorical vices that grease the rails of American government. Get caught up with an exploration of gluttony, lust, pride, envy, wrath, greed and sloth.
Even after 18 years, the Starr Report hasn’t lost its ability to shock — not only because it documents a president being serviced in the White House by an intern but also because an independent counsel felt it was his sworn duty to record the details as if dishing the dirt in a junior high bathroom. So now, in the pages of junior high history textbooks — between images of the Berlin Wall and the twin towers — is the face of that intern, who’s just as famous as those former landmarks for having gone down before the world.
Such a record is a testament to the timeless lure of sex and power — both for those who engage in sordid horseplay within the vestibules of power and for the rest of us who stoop to buy a newspaper, launch a congressional inquiry or fire up our computers to consume every salacious detail. And while the 1990s — bookended by a pubic-hair-laden can of Coke and the fall of a House speaker carrying on his own extramarital dalliance at the very time he was leading the presidential witch hunt — are particularly raunchy, the sin of lust in American politics has been coursing through the veins of the republic since its founding.
So, with Donald Trump pronouncing Bill Clinton’s sex scandal “fair game” again, let us summon our inner Kenneth Starr to investigate the history of this titillating sin, to satiate our deep yearning for, ahem, edification.
How Not to Get Caught Doing It in the White House
On the frigid afternoon of Jan. 20, 1961, a newly inaugurated John F. Kennedy uttered his famous “Ask not what your country” supplication. By that evening, as the libidinous president arrived at a party in Georgetown, he had a completely different kind of ask in mind: “Where are the broads?”
In addition to his name, looks and libido, Kennedy had inherited from his father, Joseph, a love of skinny-dipping with young women, a pastime he had the good fortune to pursue in the White House pool. When embarking on his candidacy for president, JFK had worried that his opponents would make hay of his rampant philandering, lamenting in a note to his staff, “I suppose if I win — my poon days are over.” His opponents refrained; Kennedy did not.
Evolving mores of the American press meant that philandering politicians were temporarily spared public consequences for private misconduct. Today it’s a different story.
While no discussion of political sexploits is complete without JFK, his liaisons hardly stand alone in the annals of presidential politics. Warren G. Harding, for example, needed just a 5-square-foot coat closet in the White House for congress with his mistress — while a Secret Service member stood watch for the first lady. Franklin D. Roosevelt brazenly conducted a nearly 30-year affair with his wife Eleanor’s secretary.
Thanks to a cooperative press, canoodling by these commanders in chief went largely unreported, as did the indiscretions of the men running for the highest office in the land. Consider this: As his campaign bus pulled into a Midwest town at the end of a long day in 1956, a pent-up Estes Kefauver — senator, womanizer, presidential candidate — exclaimed, “I gotta fuck!” with Russell Baker of The New York Times right there. Baker refrained from taking the remark any further; Kefauver presumably did not.
Lusting After Politicians’ Personal Lives
But the press corps has not always been as deferential to politicians’ private lives as they were in the mid-20th century. In the late 19th century, muckraking journalism was rampant, even if it didn’t always deter bad behavior. Grover Cleveland managed to win the presidency in 1884 despite siring an illegitimate child, committing the mother to an asylum and enduring taunts of “Ma, Ma, where’s my pa?”
Over time, however, the evolving mores of the American press — not to mention its cozy relationship to the political class — meant that philandering politicians were temporarily spared public consequences for private misconduct. Today it’s a different story. Watergate whetted the media’s appetite for scandal, and an entire generation of reporters grew up believing sunlight was the best disinfectant for whatever was rotten in the state of American politics. In 1976, Jimmy Carter confessed to Playboy “I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times,” and in 1987, Colorado Sen. Gary Hart was forced to abort his presidential campaign after three Miami Herald reporters broke the story of his alleged affair with model Donna Rice. (Hart’s campaign denied the accusation.)
The list of sex-scandalized politicians goes on: Anthony Weiner, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Eliot Spitzer, Mark Sanford and David Vitter, to name just a few (of the overwhelmingly male examples). And yet, despite the waves of scandal, the question remains: How relevant are a politician’s personal transgressions to his public life?
Is Abstinence the Best Policy?
There’s never been a conclusive correlation between a politician’s flawed personal life and his public performance. “We can get a time machine and we can go back and we can throw out Franklin Roosevelt … and we can throw out John Kennedy and we can throw out pretty much every president of the 20th century,” Matt Bai, a Yahoo News political columnist, tells OZY in The Contenders: 16 for ’16, premiering on PBS next month. “But I think history has proven well beyond a doubt that not everything about your marriage [and] your personal life is relevant to how you’re going to govern.”
Yet a dodgy personal life can lead to some very public consequences. Did Kennedy’s secret liaisons embolden him to take risky, clandestine chances in public affairs like the Bay of Pigs? Did Clinton’s personal impropriety compromise his second term in office? “Sometimes that kind of personal behavior can expose a political figure to blackmail and to all kinds of political pressure,” says Claremont McKenna College politics professor John J. Pitney Jr. “At that point, sexual misbehavior stops being a private matter and becomes a security risk.”
But to avoid such risks and restore our deflowered democracy, we need more than abstemious politicians — and reporters. The true test of our resolve depends on how well you, I or anyone can forgo the thrill of instant gratification once that clickbait headline appears or that news notification vibrates in our pocket. When temptation arises and we come across an article like this one, will we have the discipline to keep it in our pants? Or, when it comes to tales of political lust like the Starr Report, are we destined to respond like a pent-up Kefauver, bursting off that bus and exclaiming, “I gotta read!”?