Saturday, June 25, 2011

The disappearance of public life

By the time this post appears I plan to be on vacation, but I can predict fairly confidently that Anthony Weiner will no longer be a member of Congress. The scandal surrounding his texts and photos marks a new low in American politics--a new stage in a long process that began, as I recall, in 1987, when Gary Hart was running for President--and which can only get worse as time goes on. And, not for the first time, I have not been able to find a single other commentator who seems willing to introduce some sanity into this particular discussion.

I was 40 in 1987 and I had already observed, and read about, a great deal about politics and sex. The behavior of Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy, and Warren Harding, to name only four, was already well known. More importantly, I had seen enough of political life first hand to know that politicians are not average people. They do a very difficult job--ministering to all our needs cheerfully, 24 hours a day and 7 days a week--and it inevitably puts a big strain on their family life. Until the 1970s a divorce was often (although not always) enough to ruin a political career. And politicians generally have large egos and radiate a certain charisma which, as Henry Kissinger mentioned to Mao Zedong, can be a strong aphrodisiac. Thus sexual escapades among politicians, I realized, could frequently be expected to occur--and history taught us that they said nothing, literally, about the politician's ability to govern.

So it was that I was genuinely shocked in 1987 when the press decided to take Gary Hart up on his challenge to "follow him around" and publish the story of him and Donna Rice, sinking his campaign. It was not that I thought Hart would be a great President or even that I planned to vote for him; I simply knew that our politics could not function if this kind of thing became a staple of front page news. And the last 24 years, I think, have vindicated my judgment in spades.

A good, if not great, President of the United States, Bill Clinton, had to spend many hundreds of hours and probably millions of dollars defending against various allegations of sexual misconduct. The law enforcement mechanism of the federal government was deployed to discover whether he had had sex with Monica Lewinsky. When Ken Starr released the "Lewinsky report" I was truly shocked to discover the not so awful truth: they had apparently not had sex, as it is normally defined. But that hardly mattered. A blow job became the basis, in effect, for the impeachment of a President. (I know technically he was impeached for lying when he said they didn't have sex, but he never should have been asked, or agreed to answer, a question like that, in the first place.) It turned out, curiously enough, that a majority of my fellow citizens evidently shared my view with regard to Clinton, and he survived, much to the frustration of the press corps that had lavished so many inches upon Whitewater and Lewinsky. But that was 12 years ago--now we have gone much further.

No one seems to care that Anthony Weiner, unlike Mark Sanford, Mark Foley, John Edwards, David Vitter, and all the rest, never actually did anything except flirt lasciviously on the internet, an exciting and usually harmless pursuit in which many millions of Americans have engaged. As a matter of fact, I think everyone should stop and think about this for a moment: such flirting, or "sexting," is almost a normal rite of passage for today's youth, and do we really want to ban a whole generation from public office on this basis? Has it occurred to anyone exactly how easy it would be for a hostile blogger like Andrew Breitbart to entrap a politician, whether liberal or conservative, into such an exchange? In one respect Weiner was noticeably indiscreet: he sent pictures. Clearly one rule we should all adopt forthwith is this: don't allow anyone, including a lover or spouse, to take fully or partially nude photos of you in the digital age. But I am not sure that the pictures were the critical variable this time, and I am quite sure that they will not be next time. We have reached an Orwellian Age: sexual thoughtcrime is enough to drive you out of office, if you have entered your thoughts as text.

Today [June 9 -- ed,], for the first time in three consecutive days, the New York Times decided that the Weiner story did not belong on p. 1, column 8. Matt Drudge of course continues to headline it. The Democratic leadership has totally abandoned Weiner, just as Agriculture Secretary Vilsack abandoned the black woman in the Agriculture Department whose speech Breitbart excerpted falsely. Weiner will not be the last politician to be destroyed in this way. The country may not miss him, but its political life has suffered enormously.


Anonymous said...

Outstanding post -- this needed to be said.

galacticsurfer said...

I think that the previous century being dominated by communism vs. fascism and capitalism originated in the 19th century problematic arising out of rapid industrialization. Obviously this has run its course and all these systems have failed. Now the only forward looking ideology is ecologism (also ecological economics) which sees the earth itself endangered by this very industrialization. The previous systems of the 20th century were just arguing how to divide up a supposedly infinite cake. Now the cake, mother nature, has been nearly destroyed. Coming global war will make WWII look child's play if the natural destruction does not end. The new heroes or internationalists (like communists 100 years ago) are greens.

Gerald Meaders said...

Thanks for this post.

If we had a more highly ordered, and accountable, and useful, political system,

then this kind of sad Weiner outcome might make some more sense, in a way.

Unfortunately, we do not, so it is another kind of absurdest event, among a myriad, a long cavalcade, of others.

all the best,

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Steven Winsor said...

David, I think the 'lying to the public' aspect is what helped derail Weiner as much as the 'sexting'. Much of the media has seemingly decided the 'lying' is not a major part of this, as little mention is made of it in post-Weiner analysis. Even you seem to concentrate on the sex aspect as the primary driver for Weiner's demise. In my mind, the lying by Weiner day-by-day was the far greater transgression...but I may be in the minority. If society is no longer concerned about its leaders failure to tell the truth (and in this case, actively lie), then maybe we are a lost cause.

David Kaiser said...

To those of you who say the problem is lying, not sex, I can only reply that in a sane, civilized country, no public official ever has to answer questions about things like this--just as the case was in the US half a century ago. We knew other things were more important.