Let's put an end to political voyeurism

We will never understand the marriages of public figures, so why don't we just stop gossiping?

Published June 11, 2010 10:12PM (EDT)

Here’s the deal: Other people’s marriages are a foreign country where you don’t know the language. Every marriage has a public face and a private reality, indeed, different faces for different audiences. It’s a happy couple that always agrees which masks to wear. Penetrating these disguises has preoccupied small-town gossips and would-be Tolstoys throughout recorded history.

Like all voyeurism, it’s a sadistic activity.

Broadly speaking, the more uncertain people are about their own domestic arrangements, the more they’re fascinated by the sins and sorrows of others. As full-fledged TV celebrities, politicians have been deemed fair game for the Hedda Hoppers and Louella Parsonses of the Washington press corps for more than twenty years now. Play-acting and jack-o-lantern smiles have accordingly become an occupational necessity.

Hence what’s true of all marriages becomes even truer of politicians—the George and Laura Bushes no less than the Al and Tipper Gores, even (maybe especially) the Bill and Hillary Clintons. Barring untimely exposure—the senator caught patronizing whores or propositioning an undercover cop, the congressman making videos promoting sexual abstinence with the cute aide who’s his mistress, the president entangled with the former White House intern—voters only get to see what the power couple wants them to see.

Millions, therefore, get a cheap thrill out of seeing the masks removed and the mighty brought low. Grim economic news and the ongoing catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico have also left many yearning for a distraction. Media careerism plays a strong role too. In the quest for readership and ratings, it’s getting to where the fastest way for a politician to make it into a New York Times or Washington Post op-ed column, or to get talked about on “Hardball,” is to be accused of marital indiscretions.

Problem is, you not only don’t know public figures’ intimate lives, you can’t know. Maureen Dowd and Chris Matthews sure as hell don’t know. What sane politician would share a private confidence with any journalist? Most pundits psychoanalyzing politician’s intimate lives are simply narrating what my friend Bob Somerby of the dailyhowler.com describes a “brainless Group Novel” of their own invention, featuring imaginary characters they pretend are real, and themes revelatory of their own preoccupations.

It’s backstairs gossip, nothing more.

Furthermore, it’s none of their damn business, none of yours or mine. I fail also to see how any American who’s been paying attention could think the national political press’s descent into quasi-fictive celebrity journalism has been good for the country. At least Hollywood gossips Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons understood that many of their “scoops” were studio press releases thinly disguised.

In that sense, I agree with former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson’s recent Washington Post column. Moved by the plight of his friend Rep. Mark Souder (the abstinence crusader), Gerson wants to know, “What does sexual conduct have to do with the qualifications for public service?... I have known politicians who are cold, arrogant, reckless—and faithful to their spouses. And I have known politicians who have been unfaithful and served the public well.”

That said, before I start trouble in my own marriage, I should concur in my wife’s strongly held view that the spectacular indiscipline of America’s most famous unfaithful politician led directly to the disastrous presidency of the cold, arrogant, reckless, but ostensibly faithful one.

No Monica Lewinsky, no Bush tax cuts, no doubled National Debt, no Iraq War. Who knows, maybe no 9/11? President Gore wouldn’t have blown off that CIA briefing, that’s for sure.

Something else Bill Clinton’s folly also led to was the Beltway media’s mendacious “War on Gore.” Shedding crocodile tears, they were all given a chance to air the favored canards all over again by the recent announcement of Al and Tipper’s separation. On CBS Evening News, Katie Couric and Sharyl Attkisson reminded us that “the Gores actually weren’t the inspiration for ‘Love Story’ as the former vice president once claimed….But their love story lasted 40 years.”

Actually, ladies, Gore never said that. The Nashville Tennessean did. Moreover, novelist Erich Segal told the New York Times they’d gotten it half right. His former student Al Gore was the model for his novel’s preppy hero. Not that any of the Times’s political gossip columnists ever noticed. But hey, if Al and Tipper are going to frustrate our appetite for melodrama, why not invent some?

But the politician who’s really caught like the proverbial deer in the headlights is South Carolina GOP gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley. Endorsed by Sarah Palin, Haley’s been accused of adultery by two political consultants connected to her opponent. She denies it. Both have produced purely circumstantial evidence; she’s been challenged to take a lie detector test.

OK, so it’s South Carolina. Anything goes. So where are the Southern gentlemen we’ve heard about?

Because true or false, both cads should be horsewhipped.

By 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 eugenelyons2@yahoo.com.

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