Sunday, November 13, 2005

No Sex Please, We're American Voters

The New York Times

No Sex Please, We're American Voters

Another election has come and gone, and with it yet another demonstration of American voters' fascinating indifference to the sexual behavior of their public officials.

This year's prime exhibit was New Jersey, where Senator Jon Corzine scored a decisive win against his Republican opponent in the governor's race, Douglas Forrester, despite a last-minute barrage of attack ads in which Mr. Corzine's ex-wife was quoted as declaring that unlike Mr. Forrester, "Jon did let his family down, and he'll probably let New Jersey down, too."

That is not a connection most voters tend to make. The terrible truth is that great public leadership and domestic fidelity do not really go hand in hand. Some of our favorite national leaders were unreliable on the domestic front. Franklin Roosevelt comes to mind, as does John F. Kennedy. And the current mood of the electorate seems to clearly favor the argument that things were better when the worst thing the president did wrong was have sex with an intern in the Oval Office.

The idea that private sexual misconduct is beside the point for an elected official goes way back to the founding fathers. Alexander Hamilton famously, and rather hysterically, published a pamphlet detailing his affair with a married woman named Maria Reynolds. He wanted to make it clear that the mysterious payments he had been making to Mr. Reynolds were not part of an embezzlement scheme, but simply a result of good old all-American blackmail. The delegation of congressmen who had been assigned to investigate Hamilton's financial transactions regarded this as way too much information.

The Maria Reynolds affair did produce an outcry among Hamilton's political opponents - one newspaper thundered that "even the frosts of America are incapable of cooling your blood and the eternal snow of Nova Zembla would hardly reduce you to common propriety," which perhaps goes to show that they don't make editorial page editors like they used to. But Hamilton shared the standards of his political peers when it came to morality - if not discretion. And the public went on to elect Thomas Jefferson as president, despite the tavern songs about his relationship with the slave "Monticello Sally" Hemings, and to fall madly in love with Andrew Jackson, who they very well knew had lived with his wife, Rachel, when she was still married to another man.

Mr. Corzine, however, broke the rule that says the affair has to stay in the bedroom. All bets are off when adultery leaches into the public sphere (or the White House pantry). His affair - which Joanne Corzine claimed broke up her marriage - was with a woman who serves as president of a state workers' union. And when it ended, Mr. Corzine forgave a $470,000 loan he had made to her when she bought her house. (His supporters argued that the multimillionaire candidate was so rich that it would have been unseemly for him to dun his ex-girlfriend for such a paltry sum, thus unveiling a hitherto unnoticed downside to the trend toward fabulously rich political candidates.)

This was not as severe a mixing of sex and policy as occurred with New Jersey's last elected governor, James McGreevey. The nation missed a chance to see what happens when an already elected (and already married) chief executive suddenly announces he is gay, because of the deeply complicating fact that Mr. McGreevey had given the job of special assistant to the governor for homeland security to the object of his affections, an Israeli poet.

Nevertheless it's interesting that the adultery-doesn't-matter rule still seems so strong at a time when Americans have been mixing religion and politics so enthusiastically. (Just last week the increasingly nutty Pat Robertson suggested that God would no longer be answering any prayers in Dover, Pa., since the voters tossed out the intelligent-design team on the local school board.) It would be interesting to see if the voters in very red states were as impervious to these issues as New Jersey - or as California was back when it was ignoring all those fondling allegations and electing Arnold Schwarzenegger governor. (Arizona voters seemed to react calmly when a Republican congressman, Jim Kolbe, announced he was gay - although gay-rights advocates were not nearly as serene when Mr. Kolbe voted for the Defense of Marriage Act.)

An even more interesting question is whether the public will separate sex from politics when it comes to female candidates. When the issue has come up in the past, it usually involved spectacularly messy marital meltdowns in which the woman was more sinned against than sinning. Even then, voters have shown little enthusiasm about untangling the domestic mess. Coya Knutson, one of the earliest women to win a Congressional seat completely in her own right, was undone when newspapers published an open "Coya Come Home" letter signed by her alcoholic husband. More recently, Enid Greene Waldholtz of Utah lost her office after it turned out that her husband had broken just about every campaign finance law written since the dawn of time. New York voters didn't have much trouble in the end with Hillary Clinton's problematic marriage - but then New York is deep in the at-least-he-never-invaded-Iraq territory.

What would happen if a woman was running for governor and the voters discovered she had had an extramarital affair with a union leader, and her ex-husband told the media she'd probably betray the voters the way she betrayed him? Would the voters shrug it off so casually, and tell each other that at least she never put her inamorato in charge of fighting terrorism?

Two good bets: 1) Sooner or later we'll find out. 2) Probably not.