Sex scandals are bipartisan

But it's Republicans who are prone to preaching about other people's intimate lives

By Gene Lyons
July 2, 2009 2:15PM (UTC)
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From left: Newt Gingrich, John Ensign and Mark Sanford.

With respect to Gov. Mark Sanford, it's probably always a mistake for a Puritan to visit Latin America. A handsome cardiologist's son, he married money, went into real estate, then politics. Like many South Carolina aristocrats, he's an Episcopalian. However, like most Southern Republicans, Sanford talked like a biblical fundamentalist: piously condemning others' sexual sins and boasting about his own righteousness.

Such simple-minded certitudes often fail to survive exposure to the wider world. One dark-eyed temptress and it all comes undone.


You'd think the man had never heard a country song.

GOP hypocrisy regarding the "culture war" that Newt Gingrich declared against Democrats a couple or three marriages ago is getting to be a very old story. It's hard keeping track of the virtual parade of naughty congressmen, philandering GOP mayors and governors, polymorphously perverse right-wing preachers and Republican senators variously soliciting undercover cops, patronizing prostitutes and sleeping with the help.

Until Sanford's weepy confession, everybody was happily pretending to be shocked by the revelation that Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., carried on with a staffer whose jealous husband blew the whistle.


People, Ensign's home is Las Vegas, whose major industries are casino gambling and prostitution. All things considered, it's probably a good thing Sanford undertook his "trade mission" to Buenos Aires; in Vegas, he might have lost his shirt along with his innocence.

Some Republicans complain of a double standard. Nonsense. They're the ones that opened Pandora's box. Washington Monthly's Steve Benen put it best: "If you help run Mothers Against Drunk Driving and you're caught drunk driving, it's going to be a bigger deal than the typical DUI."

But no, I haven't forgotten the recent John and Elizabeth Edwards show. Nor the crass behavior of New York's Democratic Gov. Eliot Spitzer. Nobody will ever forget the adventures of President Clinton and that woman, Miss Lewinsky. The panting Washington media won't allow it. During last year's presidential contest, the New York Times ran a front-page article speculating how many nights Bill and Hillary Clinton spend together. (And another insinuating that Sen. John McCain's friendship with a blond lobbyist was more than professional.)


The difference is that while Democratic politicians are equally prone to using their families as stage props, they're less given to Sunday-school homilies about other people's intimate lives.

Theologically speaking, the two parties have divided the Seven Deadly Sins as follows: Republicans oppose lust, sloth and envy; Democrats scorn gluttony, greed, wrath and pride. Little progress is reported.


More broadly, hypocrisy about political sex scandals is well-nigh universal. First, everybody pretends to abhor having to talk about everybody's favorite topic. This invariably leads to deep-thinking efforts such as a recent Associated Press analysis headlined "Why Do Politicians Cheat?"

"Narcissism is an occupational hazard for political leaders," one professor explained. "You have to have an outsized ambition and an outsized ego to run for office." During the Lewinsky Follies, a veterinarian friend put it more succinctly: "Enhanced breeding opportunities are the whole point of becoming an Alpha male among the primates."

Covering a professional bass-fishing tournament in Tennessee years ago, I formulated Eugene's First Law of Sexual Dynamics: "If there's something one man can do better than another, there's a woman who'll sleep with him for it." At the weigh-in, the docks were lined with young women eager to hook up with the fishing jocks, costumed like George W. Bush on "Mission Accomplished" day, with colorful embroidered patches advertising rods, reels and lures.


OK, so I'm (half) joking. Word of this phenomenon hasn't reached the lovely Dana Perino, President Bush's former press secretary. Writing in National Review Online, she opined that if we'd elect more women, we'd have fewer sex scandals. "No woman I know has the time for such trysts, nor do I know any who say they desire one. They're too busy trying to keep all the plates spinning at home, at work, and at the gym ..."

Except, of course, for women busy having affairs with politicians. Not to mention professors, newspaper reporters, plumbers and minor league third basemen. Dana, sweetheart, people find time.

The most aggravating reactions, however, are those presuming to dictate exactly how the wronged partner ought to react. Stand by the cheater or make a public display of anger? Keep the cad or divorce him?


Whether it's Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Edwards or Jenny Sanford, my view's the same: Other people's marriages are a foreign country where you don't speak the language. Butt out.

I also think we'd all be better off going back to pre-Clinton hypocrisy, when a politician had to end up drunk in the Tidal Basin with a stripper dubbed the "Argentine Firecracker" to make news. Alas, celebrity sex is a big circulation and ratings booster. Politicians are considered fair game.

We've become a nation of peeping Toms; it's a sadistic activity.

© 2009 by Gene Lyons. Distributed by Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

Gene Lyons

Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of "The Hunting of the President" (St. Martin's Press, 2000). You can e-mail Lyons at

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