Friday, November 17, 2017

Sex and politics

Lying in bed last night, I began running through the list of 20th and 21st century Presidents and comparing their sexual behavior.  Here, divided by party, are the results of my survey.

                President                                             Known misbehavior
           Teddy Roosevelt                                             None
           William Howard Taft                                     None
           Warren Harding                                             Extramarital affairs, love child
           Calvin Coolidge                                            None
           Herbert Hoover                                             None
           Dwight Eisenhower                                      Wartime affair
           Richard Nixon                                              None
           Gerald R. Ford                                              None
           Ronald Reagan                                             Nothing alleged after 2nd marriage
           George H. W. Bush                                      Extramarital affair alleged
          George W. Bush                                            None
          Donald Trump                                              Two divorces, extramarital affairs, groping

          Woodrow Wilson                                         Extramarital affair during first marriage
          Franklin Roosevelt                                      Extramarital affairs
          Harry Truman                                              None
         John F. Kennedy                                           Extramarital affairs
         Lyndon Johnson                                            Extramarital affairs
         Jimmy Carter                                                None
         Bill Clinton                                                  Extramarital affairs, unwanted physical advances
         Barack Obama                                             None
   
Summarizing, we find that out of 12 Republican Presidents, seven, as far as we know, would not have been vulnerable to accusations of scandal.  Of the other five, four of them--Harding, Eisenhower, Bush I and Trump--were elected, two of them by landslides, despite widespread rumors (or, in Trump's case, multiple accusations) of misbehavior.  Eisenhower's case is more interesting than I realized.  Kay Summersby, his wartime driver, had actually written a book in the 1940s detailing their association, albeit without any reference to sex, and reviewers did not shrink from using the word "intimate" to describe it.  Yet this had no impact on his candidacy.

Of the 8 Democrats, only three led blameless personal lives in this respect.  Overall, we see 20 Presidents, exactly half of whom did not, apparently, lead strictly monogamous lives after marriage.That, interestingly enough, exactly matches the figure for male marital infidelity published by Alfred Kinsey, based on a very respected survey, in the middle of the last century.

Looking at these lists, I personally can't see any correlation between personal behavior on the one hand and performance in office on the other.  Franklin Roosevelt was a far greater President than Herbert Hoover; Barack Obama was certainly superior to Warren Harding; etc.  Bill Clinton occupies an interesting historical niche within this list: he was the last Presidential philanderer, it seems, who (barely) got away it.   There is general agreement, in the wake of the controversies over non-politicians Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein and political figures Ray Moore and Al Franken, that Clinton would never have survived in office today.  Yet the fact remains that Donald Trump was elected President after he bragged about serially abusing woman on tape, suggesting--as does the attitudes of Alabama Republicans--that Republicans may take such behavior less seriously than Democrats.

Why was it, then, that so many Presidents were elected and remained in office despite personal sexual misbehavior?  In part, of course, this was the result of a kind of gentleman's agreement that such matters were private and not a fit topic for discussion in major media.  Today many people would regard that as an all-male conspiracy designed to protect men, while others might still see it as a sensible custom that allowed our government to function, often very effectively.  In any case, those days appear to be gone.

It is heartening, in a way, that none of the contemporary controversies involves a consensual affair between adults.  I still believe that thsoe episodes are no one else's business, but we are dealing today with something else altogether, allegations of actual physical abuse or attempts to exploit power to secure sexual favors.  Few people, if any, will defend behavior like that.  Yet we don't have a clear standard for what level of bad behavior constitutes disqualification from public office.  At the moment, Al Franken's career is threatened by one clear instance of an unwanted advance and groping. Michelle Goldberg of the New York Times has already called for his resignation and asked the Governor of Minnesota to appoint a woman to succeed him, not because she thinks he deserves to go--she doesn't--but because only this will sustain the current momentum to do something about sexual harassment.  With that I cannot agree, but many will.  (If more women come forward to accuse Franken, the situation, of course, will change very rapidly.  In addition, if Ray Moore wins his election in Alabama, Mitch McConnell will undoubtedly push to have both of them expelled from the Senate.)

I think, as I tried to indicate last week, that we are having trouble keeping various issues in perspective; but that is largely the fault of the politicians themselves. Everyone (including myself) agrees that sexual harassment is a serious problem and that sanctions against it have heretofore been inadequate.  And many of us have almost no respect for any sitting politician, and therefore see no reason not to sacrifice any of them to our current crusade or even to allow them ordinary privacy in their personal life.  There is, however, one enormous exception.  Donald Trump's supporters did not care about the revelations about his behavior during the 2016 campaign, and apparently they still don't.  It will, I think, inevitably occur to many politicians and commentators that if in fact Franken deserves to be driven out of the Senate, Trump should not remain in the White House.  Yet remain he probably will, and this will raise new questions about the attempt to discipline powerful and abusive men, what impact it will have, and whom it will benefit.                         

2 comments:

Bozon said...

Professor

Great topic and illuminating post.

This is sort of the devolution of American culture and politics, from its disparate roots in Europe.

At least the British Victorian nobility still had the good taste to keep it mostly to adultery, and the circumspection, it seems, to keep their adultery largely within their own class.

Ridley has a nice account of some of this lost world, "Palmerston", for example, at p 42, re the Lady Patronesses of the Almack Club in London (the most exclusive club in the world was run by these women), among them, Lady Cowper, Madame de Lieven, and Lady Jersey, who all had affairs with Palmerston.

All the best

energy flow said...

Sex is part of our energy expression between sexes, expression of power, affection, creativity even hate as a tool of war or to demean or control others or just a dead routine like anything else having lost all deeper meaning. Intergenarationally power between sexes changes as male energy in 50s was out of home and female was in home, traditional and boomers reversed or balanced that out, Xers reversed somewhat and millenials are perhaps going further backward voluntarily as they have acheived economic equality and wish sexual normality(clearer role playing in daily life-men with beards, lots of muscles, but very polite regardless of position above or below them).

Powerful people simply reflect generational role play like ike and jfk and clinton. If future female or gay presidents are sexually abusive remains to be seen but powerful people attract groupies and have flexible morals, both work together to create dangerous circumstances in a slippery slope, as in Rome or in boom times by bankers with scantily clad secretaries at parties, abuse is preprogrammed when income gap widens. Sugar daddys pay debts of students nowadays. This is voluntary but prostitution is like slavery, little choice. Weinstein and spacey show what power creates. JFK and Clinton did same. Ike seemed to be extremely discrete and democratic from your portrayal. Feminism nowadays seems to be moving more in direction of calvinism, opposite of original course to guarantees female safety against irreligious amorality of the monster they created(porn and hollywood). Conservative morality, as with ike, allows women general freedom to choose due to religious precepts, if followed with conscience. I can admire a woman, even desire her, but God sees all and judges and each of us has an eternal soul and lov e is more important than sex. So even given the opportunity and inclination a deeply religious person would be more disinclined to 'sin' and feel deeper shame afterwards than an enlightened 'liberal' whose only worry is getting caught or publicly shamed. So essentially we return to a common culture in balance between male and female energies as the left's excesses are punished, the right moderates to the left and young women force young men to be real men. Now we just have to solve the wealth gap, corruption, false racial divide. Time and younger generation will certainly have a flexible soltion for that so we must only wait. If the country dos not fall apart but that would also be a solution.