Which Political Party Has Better Sex Scandals? A Deeply Unscientific Study

 Illustration by Barry Blitt.

Illustration by Barry Blitt.

Long ago, at the beginning of my journalistic career, I briefly quit my job in a dispute over Senator Edward Kennedy, then in his golden years as a symbol of liberalism and dean of the Democratic Party. Kennedy was challenging Jimmy Carter for the Democratic presidential nomination. The issue was whether Kennedy’s reputation for philandering was a legitimate subject of reportage and debate. His marriage was dissolving at the time, but he and his first wife, Joan, were still technically married.

I took the position that Kennedy’s behavior showed a disrespect for women that suggested, and maybe more than suggested, a disrespect for people in general, and therefore was relevant to the voters’ assessment of him. My boss, along with almost all of the media, took the position that what Kennedy did in private should remain private. In fact, the phrase “What Kennedy did in private” became a typical euphemism of the time, even when the so-called private behavior actually took place in public. But the near-universal view in those ancient days was that the private behavior of politicians, however public, should not be reported. Politicians should be judged on the eloquence of their oratory or the quality of their legislative proposals or ... whatever, but, at any rate, something else.

I thought this was stuffy. I thought it was hypocritical. After all, if a politician posed for pictures of himself opening Christmas presents at a shelter for homeless children (and, yes, of course, giving the presents to the children, not keeping them for himself), no one—least of all the politician—would object that giving away Christmas presents was the politician’s private affair and should be kept out of the media. (I use “him” in this column when I really mean “him or her,” because I really mean “him.”)

I also thought that it shouldn’t be up to journalists to decide what information voters use to make up their minds. If it bothered voters that a politician was unfaithful to his wife (the very language is archaic), or if it would bother the voters to know about it (as many did not, lacking access to newsroom watercooler gossip), then it was not the job of journalists to decide that the voters were too unsophisticated to both enjoy this information and ignore it in the voting booth as they should.

Looking back, I am the one who now seems stuffy. Almost no one questions the case for total exposure of sexual folly by politicians. And precisely because it is no longer shocking, journalists have nothing to prove by publishing it. Sometimes it doesn’t even make page one. Or, like the predatory behavior of former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, it takes years for the story to become public, whatever the whisperings may have been. All that is left is a barstool or kitchen-stool debate: Who’s been naughtier? Who is more inclined, on average, to find himself embroiled in sexual scandal—a Democrat or a Republican?

To answer this question, we must refine it. That will require a presidential commission plus extensive congressional hearings, and we won’t know the answer for years. But we can at least start on this important work.

The most famous sexual scandal of our era was without question the one that led to Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial. (We never did develop a good shorthand nickname for that scandal.) Points need to be given for the height of the office being tarnished: a sitting president! You can’t beat that. (Well, “sitting” in the metaphorical sense.) The role of the next President Clinton in the scandals of the last one will never be fully known. If she were going to tell us more, she would have done so in one of her post-First Lady books. But additional points must be given for the involvement of what may turn out to be two presidents from the same party and same family but different centuries.

Compare this with what the Republicans have to offer. Their best is the hapless Hastert, who sexually abused high-school wrestlers. This was before he became a congressman and then Speaker of the House—two heartbeats away from the presidency. It wasn’t during his incumbency as Speaker, so the Hastert scandal loses points for that. There’s good piquant detail in the “`Lazyboy’-type” chair Hastert installed with a view of the showers. But when it comes to scoring—not the best word—Hastert has sheer numbers. There were at least five young wrestlers, some not of legal age. And those who were old enough to give legal consent didn’t necessarily do so. The Hastert scandal is by far the most squalid of all the major sex scandals of the past few decades. Congratulations, “Coach”! (That’s what they called him.)

Some sex scandals (money scandals, too) are remembered only because of a beloved nickname or catchphrase. For example, I’ll never forget the phrase, but I had to look up which southern Republican governor it was who claimed he was “hiking along the Appalachian Trail” when he was actually with his Argentinean mistress. It was Mark Sanford, of South Carolina. And, yes, I know these two assertions (I was hiking the trail, and I was with my mistress) aren’t necessarily contradictory—but, no, he was not hiking the trail with his mistress. Nor is there anything wrong, per se, in dating an Argentinean, unless you’re married to someone else.

Then there’s Larry Craig, a Republican senator from Idaho, who was arrested after allegedly sending foot signals to a stranger in the next stall in the men’s room at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Apparently this can be a way of indicating receptivity to an assignation. Craig proclaimed his innocence, attributing the supposed signal to nothing more than the fact that he is a “fairly wide guy” who likes to “spread my legs” while sitting on the toilet. What came to be called the “wide stance” defense is one that observers are still puzzling through.

Among Democrats other than President Clinton, the outstanding recent case has been that of Anthony Weiner, a congressman from New York who was caught sending text messages and crotch shots of himself through the Internet to women he hadn’t met. Although no physical contact was involved, Weiner deserves a special prize for getting caught, then lying about it, then confessing, then resigning, then getting caught doing it again. He also deserves special recognition for the handle he used when sexting his selfies: Carlos Danger.

My own, unscientific—and, in fact, brazenly biased—sense is that Republicans get tangled in the web of conventional morality more often than Democrats. I haven’t even mentioned all the right-wing family-values preachers with wide stances on the Appalachian Trail in recent years. Or some of the men who were so vociferous in their condemnation of Bill Clinton—such as Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who at the time was conducting an extramarital affair with a woman on the Hill, later to become his third wife, and Senator David Vitter, whose phone number was found in the records of the fabled “D.C. Madam,” Deborah Jeane Palfrey, and who admitted that he had sinned. Or the current governor of Alabama, Robert Bentley, a former church deacon and Sunday-school teacher who (thanks to what the press calls “lusty audiotapes”) is believed to have had an affair with his married top aide (a charge they both deny), and who now faces impeachment. Or the raft of potboilers by Republican writers—from Newt Gingrich (“Suddenly the pouting sex kitten gave way to Diana the Huntress”) and Lynne Cheney to Scooter Libby and Bill O’Reilly—that could themselves be turned into lusty audiotapes.

Could it be that these conservatives are fighting an inner battle on the public stage? Or is that too simplistic? Perhaps conservatives are just sexier than liberals and can’t stop themselves from misbehaving. Or maybe it’s the other way around: it’s not that conservatives tend to be pervs (as Donald Trump charmingly called Anthony Weiner) but that pervs tend to be conservative. Or maybe a belief in free markets leads to a belief in free love. All that talk about the “invisible hand” can give a guy ideas—and make him think he’ll never get caught.