At the WaPo, Marc Fisher has an interesting dive into the evolving nature of sex scandals in politics. He’s primarily comparing and contrasting the trial of Missouri Governor Eric Greitens, accusations made against President Trump and the hasty resignation of former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. Those are all unfolding in the current era, however, so Fisher also looks at the evolution of how the media (and voters) treat elected officials who are found to be misbehaving in various ways. Of particular interest is the perception that there was a time when simply cheating on your wife was enough to drive one out of office. (We’ll clear that up in a moment.) Today, however, the focus is on violence (or at least harassment) and abuse as compared to infidelity.
“Sex scandals, underneath the salacious details and entertainment value, offer a window onto our cultural perspectives on sex, gender and sexuality,” said Juliet Williams, a gender studies professor at the University of California at Los Angeles. “It seems almost quaint to consider that just 20 years ago, a mere extramarital affair was enough to create a national crisis. The dominant frame then was a moral one — adultery, a young woman being taken advantage of.”
Now, criminality plays the role that morality once did in defining public debate. “What’s happening now is story after story forcing us to acknowledge that sex is too often accompanied by violence,” Williams said. “The pivot point was Weinstein and the Me Too movement.”
The current stories Fisher reviews seem to run the full gamut from the allegedly salacious but consensual to the criminal. (Not one of the three has admitted to actual wrongdoing thus far.) President Trump has been accused of having extramarital relations (which he has denied) but nothing violent. Schneiderman is accused of chaining up and beating his former lovers. Greitens falls somewhere in between, being accused of slapping someone, compounded by attempted blackmail. The latter two may well face criminal charges and if found guilty will rightfully lose more than their careers. By contrast, even if you believe the President’s accusers regarding extramarital affairs, unless someone figures out a way to hang some sort of campaign finance charge on him stemming from NDA payments, there doesn’t seem to be any immediate legal peril for Trump and only the voters can decide if the stories bother them enough to make a difference.
The one angle I wanted to add to what Fisher is examining is the historical press reaction. There was a time when even if the press knew about extramarital affairs of powerful elected officials it apparently wasn’t considered fit for print. How many reporters knew about John F. Kennedy, his brother and other members of the clan and their various dalliances? The answer is many, but you never saw it on the evening news back in the day.
Fast forward four decades or so and you have Bill Clinton. There were several stories about women who alleged far more than a simple consensual affair with Bubba, but we were two decades away from the “Believe The Women” era. The only one that made news was Lewinski, but that was deemed consensual in nature. (Twenty years later we’d have been talking about the outrageous idea of a man in such a powerful position accepting those sorts of “favors” from a young, female intern, but back then it was “just an affair.”) If he hadn’t lied under oath about it they couldn’t have laid a glove on the Big Dog, and even then he served out his term and went on to have astronomical approval ratings.
Roughly a decade later, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford went for his infamous week-long hike on the Appalachian Trail and the story exploded. But Sanford refused to resign and attempts to impeach him failed. He did wind up leaving the Governor’s office and the affair arguably ended his promising presidential hopes, but he wound up being elected back to the House of Representatives. Again, there were no suggestions of violence against either his wife or his Argentinian soulmate.
A few people, such as Bob Livingston (R-LA1) were found to be having affairs and eventually retired from office early, but the majority never left office just for infidelity. I suppose my point here is that the cases where moral failings alone (or at least affairs viewed only as moral failings rather than abuse of power and harassment in the old days) have dramatically ended political careers only infrequently. Most of the time the politicians involved generally get to at least finish their terms and “retire” normally. It’s the cases where violence, financial violations or other crimes are exposed in conjunction with the affair which wind up ending careers.
This, of course, is only speaking of the modern era, after World War 2. But things really don’t seem to have been markedly different in the 19th century. Daniel Webster was widely exposed in the media in the late 1840s as having had affairs with enough women to start up his own dance troupe. But he went on to serve in the upper chamber, as Secretary of State and was nearly elected president.
Maybe the “good old days” were never very good at all, but it’s been a long time since anyone was hounded out of national office solely over sex scandals. There usually needs to be some other crime associated with it in order to take them down. Yes, there were exceptions, but they were distinctly in the minority.