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Saturday, June 27, 2009

Facing Reality

A litle more than ten years ago, when Bill Clinton had been impeached by the House of Representatives for lying about his relationship-such as it was--with Monica Lewinsky, I wrote an op-ed for which I was never able to find a home. It was entitled, as I recall, "If Only the Press had been Doing Its Job," and it consisted of a series of mythical news stories. Here was the first.

Washington, National Intelligencer, May 1, 1805. President Aaron Burr announced today that the French ship La Revolution had brought a declaration of war against the United States signed by the Emperor Napoleon, and that the French garrison in St. Louis, whose numbers have steadily increased over the last two years, was expected to cross into the Northwest Territories within a few weeks. This news marks the climax of the crisis that began two years ago, when President Jefferson submitted to the Congress a treaty calling for the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France for $15 million. Unfortunately, shortly thereafter, widespread reports appeared of Jefferson's long-standing liaison with his Negro slave Sally Hemmings, by whom he had had several children. Pressure, especially from the clergy, forced Jefferson out of office, and the treaty was never ratified. The nation, already embroiled in serious difficulties with Britain over trade and the impressment of seamen, must now face the formidable armies of Napoleon.

Now from the time of the first settlements in the American colonies, our society has been, by and large, far more moralistic than the European countries from which most of the settlers claimed. Tocqueville in Democracy and America discussed the first constitution of the colony of Connecticut, which on the one hand gave all its male citizens equal political rights and provided for elections, while also prescribing the death penalty for adultery. Jefferson himself, when he arrived in Paris during the early stages of the French Revolution, was shocked by the general acceptance of adulterous affairs there. Recent scholarship, however, has shown that colonial sexual practices were much more lenient in practice than in theory--and when one newspaper did reveal Jefferson's relationship with "dusky Sally" during his Administration, the President wisely decided to say absolutely nothing at all, and got away with it. This was the first of at least four occasions upon which leading 19th century politicians survived accusations of sexual misconduct. Andrew Jackson was viciously attacked during two campaigns for having married his wife Rachel before she was actually divorced from her first husband, but won the popular vote in 1824 and 1828 nonetheless (although Rachel, sadly, died just before he took office.) His fellow Tennessean Richard Johnson went Jefferson one better, living openly with one of his slaves and acknowledging his two children by her. The scandal helped cost him his Senate seat in the late 1820s, but he returned to the House of Representatives and in 1836 was elected as Martin Van Buren's Vice President. Most famously, in 1884, Grover Cleveland, the bachelor Democratic candidate for President, had to deal with the revelation that he had apparently fathered a child years earlier by a Buffalo widow. Cleveland, running against the charismatic but financially compromised James G. Blaine, affirmed the truth of the accusation and carried on. A Democratic wag suggested that Blaine, whose private life was exemplary, should therefore be returned to private life, while Cleveland, a reform mayor and then Governor in New York, should put his sterling public character to work in the nation's highest office--and Cleveland won the popular vote for the first of three successive elections (although he lost the electoral tally in 1888.) A majority of 19th-century voters, in short, accepted that politicians were like other men, only more so.

That conclusion is one which, as a historian, I can only endorse. The average politician, male or female, is driven by a great need for love, both from the public as a whole and, often, from those close to him or her. Without such compelling needs few people would even consider undergoing the relentless exposure and the constant demands of constituents which are the essence of public life. In addition, one might note, politicians spend their days trying to meet the needs of others, and we should not be surprised that many (though not all) of them have been more than usually sexually active, often outside marriage. Reviewing the twentieth century, I find very good evidence that Woodrow Wilson, Warren G. Harding, Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton all strayed beyond the bounds of marriage to varying degrees, with questions also raised about Dwight Eisenhower (Clinton and Harding, to be sure, share the honor of having their affairs described in detail by books written by one of their mistresses.) On the other side, Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Jimmy Carter were notoriously devoted and faithful to their wives, while I am not aware of any suspicions about Taft, Coolidge, Hoover, or Gerald Ford. Reviewing that list, I can't see any correlation between marital fidelity on the one hand, and executive ability on the other--and I certainly would not want to have sacrificed the presidencies of those who strayed for the sake of public morality.

New York Times, June 4, 1941. A new government led by Sir John Simon, formerly Chancellor of the Exchequer under the late Neville Chamberlain, took over in London today after a no-confidence vote toppled Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Simon announced that he planned to open peace talks with the German government with a view to ending the war on reasonable terms and laying the foundation for a generation of peace. The fall of the Churchill government became inevitable after military reverses in Greece, combined with a financial crisis that has now made it impossible for Britain to secure supplies from the united States. A year ago, after the Fall of France, former President Roosevelt had announced his intention to support British resistance in any way possible, but the revelations of Roosevelt's long-term affair with his secretary, Missy LeHand, and with various other women printed in the Chicago Tribune led to the collapse of the movement to nominate him for a third term. The new President, Wendell Willkie, while professing support for the British, had not managed to find a way to provide more aid given the obvious financial weakness of the United Kingdom, or to overcome opposition from the isolationists in his own party. Willkie announced that he was confident that the US would be able to maintain freedom in the western hemisphere, no matter what happened in Europe.

As the age of the new mass media dawned in the twentieth century, the taboo against explicit reporting about the private lives of candidates or public officials remained in place. Plenty of reporters had at least heard credible rumors about Roosevelt, JFK, Lyndon Johnson, Nelson Rockefeller, and many others, but the private lives of politicians remained private. Roosevelt himself in 1940, during a meeting in his office, speculated that Mrs. Wendell Willkie, whose relationship with her husband had apparently not been close for some time, might have been bribed to make appearances with him during the campaign, but such talk never got into the papers. Nor did anything about John Kennedy's private life in the 1960 campaign, although one or two hints of shenanigans appeared late in his Presidency. (As I pointed out in American Tragedy, by the way, Kennedy's dalliances, while numerous, did not stand in the way of effective governance. Kennedy's well-organized and compartmentalized life is well documented in his White House appointment calendar. He arrived at the office around 8:30 or 9:00, held meetings all morning, and then, around 1:00, usually disappeared for about two hours of lunch and unspecified relaxation. Then he returned at about 3:00 for several more hours of meetings before dinner.)

It seems to have been the extensive revelations about JFK's sex life in the 1970s, along with the generally loosening climate regarding sex in the United States as a whole and perhaps the beginning of the decline of print journalism, that broke down the taboo by the 1980s. Gary Hart, who very nearly won the Democratic nomination in 1984, had his candidacy abruptly terminated in 1987 by revelations about his affair with Donna Rice after he had most unwisely dared the press to "follow him around." At that time I suggested to the most prominent journalist I knew that it might be well to convene a summit of major media outlets and agree not to report this kind of thing in the future, but my advice, obviously, was ignored. Since then we have had a string of revelations about both straight and gay politicians, most, though not all, of which have terminated the lusty office-holder's careers. In the last year two governors, from the most different states imaginable, have been caught red-handed, Eliot Spitzer of New York patronizing high-end prostitutes and now Mark Sanford of South Carolina in the mist of an intercontinental affair and a failing marriage. Spitzer took twenty-four hours to resign, and I expect that Sanford will be gone within the week.

Washington Post, June 20, 1964. Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield announced today that the omnibus Civil Rights Act, including its provision for the integration of public accommodations, had been removed from the Senate calendar after the failure of yesterday's cloture vote designed to end a southern filibuster. The bill's defeat was a terrible defeat for President Johnson, who in the wake of President Kennedy's death had put all his prestige behind it, and a victory for presumptive Republican candidate Barry Goldwater, who voted against cloture. Observers agreed that the turning point of the debate was probably the revelations, initially published in the Dallas Morning News,, of the many sexual indiscretions of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., whose "I Have a Dream" speech last August had initially made such an impression on the country. The accusations, which were confirmed on behalf of the FBI by J. Edgar Hoover, led to Dr. King's resignation from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a noticeable falling off of white support for civil rights.

It is tempting, of course, for an Administration Democrat like myself to take pleasure from the revelations about Governor Sanford, who had already established himself as a prime example of what is wrong with today's Republican party, and who ten years ago called vociferously for President Clinton's removal. That Governor Sanford ascended to a State House in the first place is a regional tragedy (and the same can be said for many of his counterparts), but that does not change my position about sex scandals in the slightest: his marital and extramarital behavior is none of our business. I will always believe that, had law enforcement stumbled upon the Eliot Spitzer affair forty years ago, they would simply have passed a discreet word to the governor's office warning him to clean up his act, and that would have been much better for all concerned, especially the New York citizenry. In the same way Governor Sanford should have been rejected by the voters based upon his attempts to turn down desperately needed stimulus money, not because he did not conform to tradtional, elevated American standards of marital behavior. Should I live another 25-30 years, I hope I shall see the day when the media has become sufficiently interested in the real business of politics and government--and sufficiently respectful of the politicians who do the jobs which most of us would not be capable of doing it--to stop jumping so eagerly on cases like this. That may be a utopian hope, but stranger things have happened--and it would make us once again a more mature and responsible country.


Jordan Greenhall said...


Any thoughts on how this kind of sensibility might flux with Generational Cycles? One would assume that Awakenings and Unravelings would experience increasing intensity around "moralizing" investigation of politicians while Crises and Highs would be low.

The specific content (fidelty) might be a historical artifact, that is, our saeculum focused on fidelity but past turnings might have focused on their moral equivalent.

Anonymous said...

This from the NY Times:

"On June 25, Mr. Sanford said that he would reimburse the state for the cost of his travel to Argentina in 2008 as part of a Latin America tour described at the time as an economic development venture. Documents suggested the amount was roughly $12,000."

If I took $12,000 from someone or some institution for my personal use, I would be facing a prison sentence.

Governor Sanford should be also.

TOF said...

WRT your first hypothetical news story, with the France and England at war with each other in that period, why would Napoleon Bonaparte want to pick a fight with the United States. He seems to be looking eastward around that time and heavily engaged in campaigns that would ultimately take him to the gates of Moscow. Picking a fight with an upstart across the Atlantic Ocean doesn't look like a Napoleonic thing to do.