West Wing Why Sex Scandals Are Good for American Democracy

America's two main parties are suffering from the erotic escapades of some of their top politicians. As embarrassing as they are for those involved, the revelations are good for democracy. They expose a particularly audacious type of politician: the hypocrite whose supposed virtue is nothing but a sham.

By Gabor Steingart in Washington


New York Governor Eliot Spitzer resigned after revelations that he had been a client of a prostitution ring.
AFP

New York Governor Eliot Spitzer resigned after revelations that he had been a client of a prostitution ring.

Americans cover their bodies in the sauna more than Germans visiting an Italian church. Anyone visiting a health club in downtown Washington who walks into the sauna after exercising will encounter a host of people all wrapped in material. One towel is used to cover the chest and shoulders, while a second one is elaborately draped around the midsection and hips.

But lust often rages beneath these towels and, in the case of some politicians, naked lunacy. When it comes to their sexual behavior, the Western superpower's elected representatives exhibit a number of traits that clearly distinguish them from politicians in other countries. And when it comes to extramarital activity, politicians in Old Europe can hardly hold a candle to their US counterparts, except perhaps some French presidents and British members of parliament, among whom a certain type of love-crazed behavior enjoys a tradition that transcends party lines.

The various political sex scandals with which the American public has been confronted during this year's US presidential primaries serve as a sort of parallel program to the official game of amassing delegates. It's the sort of thing Germans tend to only encounter at the theater, where the classics are presented on the main stage while the studio next door is the realm of the avant-garde theater's naked performers and lunatics.

Only last year, a married Republican senator's feet drifted into the next stall in a men's room at the Minneapolis airport, apparently with the intention of soliciting sex. How could the poor man have known that the man in the next stall was no sex-crazed fellow passenger, but an undercover police officer? The senator explained to the officer that he had "a wide stance" while sitting on the toilet, an explanation that would have earned him an honorable mention in the Guinness Book of Idiotic Excuses.

Politicians on both sides of the aisle are apparently repeat customers for call-girl rings. A Louisiana senator and supporter of former Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani turned up on the "DC Madame's" list of clients, while the governor of New York, a Hillary Clinton supporter, was listed as Client Number 9 by the Emperor's Club VIP prostitution ring.

People around the world are now familiar with the sums of money former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer paid for prostitutes. In Suite 871 at Washington's Mayflower Hotel, Spitzer spent more than $4,000 (€2,500) a night on a call girl nicknamed "Kristen." Over the course of several years, Spitzer spent $80,000 on prostitutes. He was considered a difficult customer at the Emperor's Club, because he preferred not to use condoms.

Republican presidential candidate John McCain proves that these things can be done more elegantly. According to the New York Times, McCain may have had a fling with a female lobbyist 31 years his junior during a campaign trip through sunny Florida back in 1999. The debate that ensued is a classic: He did her a favor, which is indisputable, and she did him one, which McCain denies.

What a colossal mistake! Or was it? What could be better for a man who is now 71, and who many voters believe is too old for the presidency, than the suspicion that he is still as vigorous as a buck in rutting season?

Family Values Are a Taboo for Democrats

Affairs are as much a part of American politics as cheese on a cheeseburger. There are many presidents in the cheaters' Hall of Fame. Thomas Jefferson fathered at least one illegitimate child with his black housekeeper, John F. Kennedy was intimate with Marilyn Monroe, and Bill Clinton's affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky is probably the most well documented extramarital affair in human history.

The recent flurry of affairs and sex scandals provides an invaluable benefit to the public. It shrinks the individual politician down to the size of an ordinary citizen, or perhaps to a size even smaller than that, and brings him closer to the voting public, whether he likes it or not. The political parties can no longer lord it over their voters as the guardians of public virtue, a strategy adopted by the Republicans, in particular, in all previous election campaigns.

The Republicans have used the phrase "family values" as a rallying cry against everyone who was somehow different from their ideal: gays and lesbians, the divorced, single mothers or fathers (who now make up more than half of American households).

Perhaps this explains why the phrase "family values" has backfired on those who coined it. The topic is already a taboo among Democrats, if only out of deference to the Clintons. Barack Obama, who is still married to his first wife, Michelle, would be the only candidate who could derive any benefit from emphasizing so-called family values. His wife recently made a tentative stab at capitalizing on the issue, when she said at a campaign event: "If you can't run your own house, you certainly can't run the White House."

But the Republicans fail across the board when it comes to lecturing the people on so-called family values. Three Republican presidential candidates, McCain, Giuliani and Fred Thompson, have chalked up seven marriages between the three of them. The daughter of Vice President Dick Cheney lives with a woman. Cheney can thank a sperm donor, not family values, for his sixth grandchild, Samuel David Cheney.

After a primary campaign of erotic escapades, the healing effects are visible everywhere. The paragons of virtue have been cut down to size. Private life is no longer politicized, but instead is being made private once again. The campaign is acquiring the discreet rules of American sauna culture. Politics with towels seems to be in demand these days.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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