While fighting to save humanity from the evils of Adolf Hitler, General Dwight D. Eisenhower had an extramarital affair with an aide who was almost half his age. Before and during his presidency, John F. Kennedy carried on numerous sexual dalliances. Thomas Jefferson copulated with his slaves. FDR had an affair that nearly destroyed his marriage. Would we be better off if these men never became president? Of course not, they’re among our best. But had they lived in the puerile, infotainment-based media climate that we currently inhabit, it is almost certain they would not have. Because according to the malformed mores engendered by this climate, each of these men was deficient in moral character and unfit for office. Their examples should serve as a lesson: it is time to stop reporting on the sex lives of politicians.
There was a time when the media was more rational about sex. Up until about forty years ago, the press maintained a gentlemen’s agreement with politicians that prevented salacious stories of their sexcapades from public circulation. Many Washington correspondents heard the stories of JFK’s affairs, for example, but didn’t report them. Why? Because they rightly believed they were the business of JFK and his family, not the public. It wasn’t until Gary Hart’s affair with Donna Rice in 1988 that the sex lives of politicians began drawing the media attention we’ve become accustomed to—and caused the public to start believing they were somehow important.
To suggest that these affairs reveal a moral defect that would result in poor decisions as a public leader is not supported by the facts.
But they aren’t. In the wake of Weiner’s resignation, and just twelve years removed from Clinton’s impeachment over a blow job, it is time to admit that the carnal indulgences of politicians are inconsequential to their duties. Moreover, the media’s rabid fascination with them attributes an outsized significance that distracts us from matters of genuine importance. Americans would have been much better off, for instance, had they never heard the name Monica Lewinsky. Because then Republicans wouldn’t have spent so much time attacking Clinton over the affair. And then Clinton wouldn’t have had to spend the final year of his presidency preoccupied with defending himself rather than, oh, I don’t know, disrupting al Qaeda and catching bin Laden.
This is not to say that Clinton-Lewinsky, or Weiner’s tweets, or John Ensign’s affair with the wife of a friend, or John Edwards’s infidelity should be condoned. This is not about judgment; it is about knowledge. We should not be informed of these matters, making judgement irrelevant. Many argue facilely that politicians’ indiscretions deserve publicity because as public servants they should be legislating instead of conducting dalliances. Many called for Weiner’s resignation based on the argument that he should have been “doing the people’s work” instead of tweeting women. But Eisenhower spent half his presidency on the golf course. George W. Bush took a record number of vacations days to “clear brush” at his ranch. As far as neglecting “the people’s work,” these were far graver violations, yet no one called for Bush’s or Ike’s resignation over them.
The moral argument is the weakest though. To suggest that these affairs reveal a moral defect that would result in poor decisions as a public leader is not supported by the facts. Richard Nixon was faithful to Pat, but his decisions as president revealed a shocking degree of immorality. George W. Bush was by all accounts a dedicated husband and God-fearing family man, yet as Texas’s governor, he executed 152 people without qualms. As president, he tortured on an unprecedented scale, trampled the Constitution, and invaded a country that didn’t attack us. And then there is history’s signal example. The most sexually prudish leader of the twentieth century was only married once, never had an affair, scorned and even demoted party members who cheated on their wives. But as chancellor of the German Reich, he launched a war that killed sixty million and attempted to eliminate a race of people from the earth.