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School for Scandal: The Truth and Consequences of Public Figures’ Libidinal Lapses

If you feel like settling in for a fascinating long read…here’s a review-essay that just ran in The Chronicle of Higher Education, academia’s professional journal. It may not convince you to run out and buy The Art of the Public Grovel, but it certainly points out just what a difficult election season we’re in for.


(Clockwise, from top left: John Edwards, Ted Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Swaggart. Photographs by Eric Thayer, Getty Images; Hulton Archive, Getty Images; Rob Nelson, Time Life Pictures, Getty Images; and Joyce Naltchayan, AFP, Getty Images)

School for Scandal

The truth and consequences of public figures’ libidinal lapses

By SUSAN BORDO

To some, our fascination with the sexual transgressions of the powerful doesn’t need academic theory for explanation. “There’s not much interest in foreign news,” says Mark Feldstein, an associate professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, but “sex scandals are timeless. They go back to Alexander Hamilton’s day. And everybody loves it.”

Apparently I missed that particular history lesson. I am old enough, however, to have lived through both the conspiracy of silence surrounding John F. Kennedy’s sexual affairs and the semen-stained exhibits produced by the Starr inquisition. A television junkie from early childhood, I have a brain overflowing with pop-culture images like family photos in an overstuffed album: Donna Rice on Gary Hart’s knee, Ted Kennedy rambling on about the “various inexplicably inconsistent and inconclusive things” he said and did while Mary Jo Kopechne was dragged to the bottom of a channel off Chappaquiddick Island, Monica-in-beret on that meet-and-greet line twinkling at Bill. I have seen news programming bloat from 10 minutes long — barely time to ignore important foreign and domestic affairs in favor of sexual ones — to 24/7 broadcasting in which desperate commentators will do virtually anything to fill their overallotment of media time. I’ve seen good men get brought down by blow jobs and sociopaths get away with homicide. And I don’t think Professor Feldstein’s “timeless” quite captures the historical and individual range of scandal mongering and consuming.

Consider a tale of two politicians:

One, married to the same woman for 31 years, has a brief affair, which he confesses to his wife, a cancer survivor. She is furious, then forgives him, and together they try their best to keep the affair private. Two years later, after losing his campaign for the presidency of the United States, he is outed by The National Enquirer and is forced to fully admit his guilt. He is decried as a “scumbag” and a traitor to his wife, whose disease has by then recurred. He remains with his wife and family, but is exiled from public life. Although he was once a likely candidate for a cabinet position or possibly even vice president, commentators generally acknowledge that his public career is over.

The other, on his return from military service, finds that the wife he left behind, a former swimsuit model, has been in a horrendous auto accident, requiring 23 operations and leaving her limping and disfigured, a full five inches shorter than she had been when he left. After five years of casual affairs, he meets a beautiful young heiress, whom he secretly pursues for six months and eventually obtains a license to marry while still legally married to and living with his first wife. He remarries five weeks after his divorce is granted. Thirty years later, he becomes his party’s candidate for president. During his campaign, few articles or media reports mention the first wife or the circumstances of his remarriage. It’s as though she never existed.

You know who these guys are. I bet, however, that at least some of you didn’t know about Carol McCain, wife No. 1, and with good reason. It’s as though there is some anachronistic collusion — or mass delusion — sustaining the myth that the perfectly coiffed blonde, as primly glamorous as a Hitchcock heroine, is all there is and ever was. But you only have to count up the children, whose numbers rival Brad and Angelina’s, to see how unlikely that is. Yet most journalists, while they frothed in indignation over John Edwards’s dalliance with self-described party-girl Rielle Hunter, seem to have reverted in dutiful obedience to the JFK playbook in dealing with John McCain’s truly shabby treatment of his ex-wife. The September 8 issue of Time, in 17 reverential pages devoted to Mr. and “Mrs. Maverick,” mention the break-up, in a sidebar on “The Clan McCain,” in one euphemistically constructed sentence: “After John returned from the war their marriage ended because of his infidelity.” Oh, and it was “the marriage” that filed for divorce? (McCain exploited the same passive construction when describing his “greatest moral failure” — to evangelist Rick Warren, during his televised Saddlebrook faith forum — as “the failure of my first marriage.”)

Perhaps Elizabeth Edwards’s life-threatening cancer elicits more sympathetic outrage than Carol McCain’s physical ordeal, now long over (although, from the few photos I’ve seen, the ravages clearly remain). Maybe, as is suggested by the career of Ted Kennedy, who was declared “finished” after Chappaquiddick but is now revered as the conscience of the U.S. Senate, there is simply a statute of limitations on public condemnation. Or maybe McCain’s horrific years as a POW have given him a “get out of jail free” card that seems never to expire. (Maureen Dowd’s mother explained it to her daughter matter-of-factly: “A man who lives in a box for five years can do whatever he wants.”) On the other hand, there are those who are never allowed to get out of jail. Bill Clinton was stalked by scandal-hungry journalists on a campaign trail that wasn’t even his own, but his wife’s.

Two fascinating, recently published books offer more theoretically driven explanations as to why scandal sticks to some while sliding off others. Ari Adut’s On Scandal: Moral Disturbance in Society, Politics, and Art, which covers the gamut from Oscar Wilde to Bill Clinton, does not offer one theory so much as a reminder of the importance of historical and cultural context. In exploring “Sex and the American Public Sphere,” for example, Adut, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, eschews the tired notion that America suffers from a “timeless” lingering Puritanism to argue that the post-60s loosening of sexual mores (which, among other things, brought the word “penis” out of the closet) and the rise of “sexual politics” (read: feminists obsessed with men abusing women) are the cause of the “high frequency of sex scandals in American public and political life.” In virtually direct contrast, Susan Wise Bauer’s wonderfully titled The Art of the Public Grovel puts the blame on the growing influence — on the American psyche, if not yet manifest politically (her book is pre-Palin) — of evangelicalism.

I usually prefer complex, multidetermined explanations of events, like the ones Adut proposes, but Bauer’s argument is elegant in its simplicity — and surprisingly persuasive. The key that determines whether a sinner will be forgiven or flayed alive, she argues, is public confession of his sins. So, according to Bauer, the 1980 presidential hopeful Ted Kennedy’s big mistake was having tried to explain his state of confusion, panic, and shock when he abandoned the car he had driven off a bridge, leaving Kopechne to die, rather than simply admitting that his actions that night were morally reprehensible, and begging us, his congregation, to forgive him. As a result, a second Kennedy presidency became unthinkable. Jimmy Swaggart, in contrast, offered a “model confession” of his infidelities, virtually wallowing in multiple admissions of sin, and abjectly begging forgiveness — from his wife, his children, his church, his ministry, his Bible school, his fellow television evangelists, and his savior. It was like Academy Awards night, but with no one playing the “wrap it up and get off the stage” music.

You don’t have to be an evangelical to know how to grovel as effectively as Swaggart (Clinton, after some initial evasion, did pretty well, too), but it helps. For underlying the demand for public confession, Bauer argues, is the “kinship” between American democracy and American evangelicalism. By this she means not that American democracy is essentially evangelical, but that the antihierarchical, optimistic, “anyone can be saved” spirit of evangelicalism — expressed, among other ways, in the “handing over of power” to the group that the public confession enacts — “translates seamlessly into rituals of American public life.” In other words, Americans respond most warmly, our self-righteousness notwithstanding, not to moral purity (and unfortunately, not to competence), but to gestures that erase hierarchy — like public admissions of fallibility, like John McCain’s “my friends” mantra, and like Sarah Palin’s insistence that she is “just your average hockey mom.”

John Edwards, of course, did confess — very publicly, on ABC’s “Nightline,” on August 8. He begged Elizabeth for forgiveness, asked God for forgiveness, admitted his own “self focus,” “egotism,” and “narcissism.” So why was he disappeared, while Swaggart and Clinton — and, let us not forget, McCain — went on to have full and highly visible public lives? Neither Bauer nor Adut discusses Edwards (whose affair hadn’t yet been made public when their books were written) or McCain (even though his post-Vietnam philandering and the circumstances of his divorce came out during his 2000 run at the Republican nomination). Happily, this gives me the opportunity to test their theories against currently unfolding events.

In a nutshell, Bauer’s theory stands up (with a bit of tweaking) and Adut’s falters. While Edwards did confess, mere confession alone, Bauer points out, is sometimes not enough to show that you are on the right side of the evangelical ledger. Her prime example is Jimmy Carter, himself a neo-evangelical, who lost 15 percent in public-approval polls and was denounced by conservative Protestants of all stripes after he confessed that he had “looked on a lot of women with lust” and “committed adultery in my heart many times.” Carter was going for just what Bauer claims is the essence of American evangelicalism: admission that one is not immunized by power or morally above the fray, but a sinner among sinners. Unfortunately, he did it in the pages of Playboy, and his choice of words was not the wisest. “Christ says, Don’t consider yourself better than someone else because one guy screws a whole bunch of women while the other guy is loyal to his wife,” he cautioned readers. Christ said “screw”? And what was with this “whole bunch” of women? Carter, in going for the common touch, had identified himself more with the wife-swapping, leisure-suited playboy of the mid-70s than with the morally conscientious, scrupulously honest man he actually was.

Edwards, despite his strong antipoverty politics, arguably never had the common touch, which was supplied to him by his wife and family. Take them out of the picture, and he seemed to many a slick-lawyer type, with an unfortunate patent-leather patina to his looks. His wife, Elizabeth, a warm, spontaneous, perfectly attractive but not Barbie-like woman, humanized him, made him appear less like a Ken doll, but when he appeared to have abandoned her for a New Age bimbette, in many people’s eyes he reverted to type. Once that public-relations alchemy had taken place, his confessions were simply not seen as redemptive. They proved not that he was contrite but that he was a hypocrite, and an arrogant one to boot. The pronouncement by Time columnist Ramesh Ponnuru about Edwards was one of the more moderate: “To think that you can build a campaign around your strong family life and standing by your sick wife and still not get caught, that is an astonishing level of arrogance.”

Applying Adut’s post-60s-rise-of-sexual-politics theory to current events, we find that it was not feminists but self-righteous (and possibly self-exonerating) male journalists who came most fiercely to Elizabeth Edwards’s defense, and that neither feminists nor Barack Obama have tried to resuscitate the circumstances of McCain’s divorce. Indeed, the “liberals” have been extremely delicate in their treatment of their opponents’ private lives. When the pregnancy of Sarah Palin’s teenage daughter Bristol came to light, Obama told the media to “back off.” “This shouldn’t be part of our politics,” he said. “It has no relevance to Governor Palin’s performance as governor or her potential performance as a vice president.” And contrary to what Rush Limbaugh or Lou Dobbs would have you believe, I have heard no feminist sermons about Sarah Palin’s poor parenting of her wayward daughter. To the extent that feminists have invoked the plight of the pregnant teen, it’s been to point out the by now well-documented flaws in the abstinence-only education that Palin advocates as public policy.

Despite a surplus of jargon on Adut’s part and a tendency to reductionism on Bauer’s, both books have information and insight to offer. Neither, however, gives due credit to what in my opinion remains the single most important factor in determining who gets skewered and who doesn’t, particularly in our current “postmodern” political climate, in which facts matter little and compelling narratives win the day: chutzpah. Those who believe that they have God on their side are loaded with it, while those who recognize that there are always several sides to a story tend to be — unfortunately for their political campaigns — more judicious.

Those with God on their side don’t worry about contradicting themselves, either. When McCain was on the evangelicals’ black list in 2000, the evangelical Christian James Dobson, chairman of the board of Focus on the Family, harshly condemned McCain’s involvement with “other women while married to his first wife,” and compared him to Bill Clinton (not a compliment in conservative circles). In 2006, Carrie Gordon Earll, a spokeswoman for Focus on the Family, indicated that adultery was still intolerable to evangelicals. “If you have a politician, an elected official, and they can’t be trusted in their own marriage, how can I trust them with the budget? How can I trust them with national security?” she told a reporter, reserving special condemnation for the man who leaves his wife as a result of an affair.

But that was before the Republican presidential candidate McCain chose Sarah Palin for his running mate and became the evangelicals’ darling. Now silence about McCain’s former life prevails — except, of course, when political expedience dictates otherwise, as it did on September 16, when McCain, speaking to a crowd in Jacksonville, Fla., warmly thanked the people of Orange Park, Fla., for “taking care of my wife and family” while he was in Vietnam. “My children had about 50,000 parents while I was gone, and I’m very grateful,” he told the crowd. His children’s actual parent, Carol, was not at the event. It was Cindy McCain who introduced him to the crowd.

Susan Bordo is a professor of humanities at the University of Kentucky. She is currently writing a book about Anne Boleyn.

UNDER REVIEW

The Art of the Public Grovel, by Susan Wise Bauer (Princeton University Press, 2008)

On Scandal: Moral Disturbance in Society, Politics, and Art, by Ari Adut (Cambridge University Press, 2008)