For more than two centuries, the American press largely ignored the infidelities of politicians. But then in 1988, Democratic frontrunner Gary Hart had to withdraw from the presidential race because of conduct that paled compared to the sexual misdeeds of other men who had actually made it to the Oval Office.
The consensus used to be that the sexual prowess of presidents had no effect on their performance: Jefferson was a major contributor to the Bill of Rights, Roosevelt enacted sweeping social reforms, Kennedy’s support of the space program landed a man on the moon, and his signing of the nuclear test ban treaty was seen as a step toward world peace.
On the other hand, another cheating husband, Harding, is considered a poor president. According to biographer George Bain, his ineptitude had nothing to do with the fact that he “fornicated in a clothes closet.” Instead Bain says Harding was a poor president because he selected corrupt administration officials and because “he was, as H.L. Menken called him, ‘Gamaliel the Stonehead.’”
Bain concluded his observation of the relationship between sexual behavior and presidential performance by writing this:
We do not inquire into the sex life of surgeons who operate on us, bankers who keep our money, or editors on whom we rely for our information needs. Surely some relevance to something must be established to say we should in the case of politicians.
So why did the Gary Hart episode set a new standard for politicians’ behavior?
Some say the shift in attitude actually started with Watergate, a scandal that made people take a closer look at ethics in the White House. Said Kenneth Thompson, author of Ten Presidents and the Press, of President Kennedy’s affairs:
In the pre-Watergate days of Camelot, most reporters on the White House beat, I believe, thought that what a president did in his spare time was his own business … provided his extracurricular activities did not impair his effectiveness as chief executive.
A new value crept into politics: trust. George Reedy, press secretary to Lyndon Johnson, expressed the argument in the following terms:
Here you have a man who is asking you to trust him with your bank account, your children, your life, and your country for four years. If his own wife can’t trust him, what does that say?
Another reason could be a shift in attitudes toward marriage. In earlier times, unhappily married politicians often turned to extramarital affairs because of prevailing negative views of divorce. Elliot Roosevelt wrote that career considerations played a major role in his father’s decision to give up his long-time mistress and stay with Eleanor because “to be divorced would mean political suicide for a man who was already being talked about by a handful of people as a future president.”
The election of Ronald Reagan, divorced from actress Jane Wyman, testified to the change in attitudes concerning divorce. With men free to divorce their wives, philandering became a larger crime.
Yet another theory is that the media created the Hart scandal. Newsweek hinted that Hart’s 1984 campaign was “haunted by rumors of womanizing,” setting in print the idea that possible affairs were a campaign issue in 1988. Even though Hart’s wife – to whom he is still married – supported his claim that his relationships with certain young women were innocent, a simple picture in the National Enquirer of Hart sitting on a yacht with a fully clothed Donna Rice on his lap effectively ended his campaign.
But another theory is that womanizing is an issue of judgment. In Hart’s case, for example, anyone “haunted by rumors of womanizing” should have the good sense to avoid the appearance of impropriety. Also, he had established his ability to repair his previously faltering marriage as a virtue, opening up his marriage as a campaign issue.
After another political sex scandal – Rep. Gary Condit admitting to an affair with intern Chandra Levy – Gallup released a poll showing that 89 percent of Americans thought it was morally unacceptable for a married person to have an affair.
By 2009, when Sen. John Ensign of Nevada and Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina resigned after admitting affairs, those Gallup numbers were up to 92 percent, and infidelity was the only related issue where public condemnation didn’t decrease in the subsequent annual survey of values and beliefs:
In 1998, after the biggest of all sex scandals, 75 percent of Americans polled by Gallup said that President Bill Clinton’s actions were no worse than the behavior of previous presidents. Another 65 percent said they did not need to know about a candidate’s sexual affairs. Only 31 percent said it was vital for a president to conduct his personal life with high moral standards.
But the public is still divided on whether the issue is relevant to public office. In 2007, 54 percent of Americans said that knowing a presidential candidate committed adultery would bother them moderately or significantly. The remainder said it would bother them “not much” if at all.
Bottom line: Politicians and their sexually scandalous ways haven’t changed. Only American attitudes have.