Wednesday, June 21, 2006
Forsaking How Many Others?
Until relatively recently, a self-confessed adulterer had never sought the presidency. Certainly, other candidates have been dogged by sex scandals. In the 1828 presidential election, John Quincy Adams questioned whether Andrew Jackson's wife was legitimately divorced from her first husband before she married Old Hickory. Grover Cleveland, who was single, fathered a child out of wedlock, a fact that sparked national headlines during the 1884 election (though he managed to win anyway). There have been presidential candidates who had affairs that the press decided not to write about, like Wendell Wilkie, FDR, and John F. Kennedy. And there have been candidates whose infidelities have been uncovered during the course of a campaign: Gary Hart's indiscretions ultimately derailed his 1988 bid, and in 1992, during the course of his campaign, Bill Clinton was forced to make the euphemistic admission that he "caused pain" in his marriage.
But it wasn't until 2000 that McCain, possibly emboldened by Clinton's survival of his scandals, became the first confessed adulterer to have the nerve to run. Now, just a few years after infidelity was considered a dealbreaker for a presidential candidate, the party that presents itself as the arbiter of virtue may field an unprecedented two-timing trifecta.
McCain was still married and living with his wife in 1979 while, according to The New York Times' Nicholas Kristof, "aggressively courting a 25-year-old woman who was as beautiful as she was rich." McCain divorced his wife, who had raised their three children while he was imprisoned in Vietnam, then launched his political career with his new wife's family money. In 2000, McCain managed to deflect media questioning about his first marriage with a deft admission of responsibility for its failure. It's possible that the age of the offense and McCain's charmed relationship with the press will pull him through again, but Giuliani and Gingrich may face a more difficult challenge. Both conducted well-documented affairs in the last decade--while still in public office.
Giuliani informed his second wife, Donna Hanover, of his intention to seek a separation in a 2000 press conference. The announcement was precipitated by a tabloid frenzy after Giuliani marched with his then-mistress, Judith Nathan, in New York's St. Patrick's Day parade, an acknowledgement of infidelity so audacious that Daily News columnist Jim Dwyer compared it with "groping in the window at Macy's." In the acrid divorce proceedings that followed, Hanover accused Giuliani of serial adultery, alleging that Nathan was just the latest in a string of mistresses, following an affair the mayor had had with his former communications director.
But the most notorious of them all is undoubtedly Gingrich, who ran for Congress in 1978 on the slogan, "Let Our Family Represent Your Family." (He was reportedly cheating on his first wife at the time). In 1995, an alleged mistress from that period, Anne Manning, told Vanity Fair's Gail Sheehy: "We had oral sex. He prefers that modus operandi because then he can say, 'I never slept with her.'" Gingrich obtained his first divorce in 1981, after forcing his wife, who had helped put him through graduate school, to haggle over the terms while in the hospital, as she recovered from uterine cancer surgery. In 1999, he was disgraced again, having been caught in an affair with a 33-year-old congressional aide while spearheading the impeachment proceedings against President Clinton.
Despite the scandalous details, whether the press will air them is still an open question. When it comes to personal morality, liberal commentators have long argued that the press has one standard for Democrats and another for Republicans (and another one entirely for the Clintons). It's possible that the mainstream media will fail to apply the same scrutiny to the known transgressions of Gingrich, Giuliani and McCain as the Times did to rumors about Hillary Clinton's husband. But for that to happen, the press will have to resist four powerful political dynamics that will almost certainly be pushing to get the story out.
One example of adultery, divorce and remarriage should not necessarily be disqualifying (in a political sense). However, a serial pattern of that behavior should give the voter pause that the individual is pathological in a certain important area of his (or, conceivably, her) life. Clinton stayed married, but Monica demonstrated that his serial adultery bordered on recklessnes. McCain could, arguably, get a pass in that his extramarital activity was long ago and he has been since remarried for some time. If there is not a more recent example, the press may let, ahem, sleeping dogs lie.
On the other hand, I think the Giuliani and Gingrich situations pose a larger problem. The examples are more recent and there are vivid scenes that played out publically -- and can be contrasted with politically. Newt's affair was going on while Clinton's impeachment was unfolding; he can say that he didn't commit any perjury the way Clinton did, but the public may deem his behavior hypocritical and possibly reckless.
Similarly, Giuliani announced the break-up on TV before talking to the wife -- just days after going for a late-night public stroll with his mistress with cameras all around (and portrayed on the front page of city tabloids). His actress-wife's declaration -- also carried live on local television -- that in addition to his newly announced "friend," Giuliani had, in fact, had a long-lasting affair with a mayoral aide created a surreal atmosphere. Needless to say, these kind of actions don't always go over well with the public (though the earlier affair with the aide was one of the worst-kept secrets in the city).
As it unfolded live on the stage that is New York six years ago, I wrote about the political implication (for conservatives) of Rudy Giuliani's extra-curricular activities and his very public break-up with Donna Hanover.
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