Jared Olar: Political sex scandals are now commonplace

Jared Olar

Time was, someone like Newt Gingrich — a twice-divorced man on his third marriage and a confessed adulterer — would not seriously weigh a run for the White House.

Back in the day, divorce and adultery were career-ending scandals for elected officials. And, generally speaking, anyone contemplating a bid for public office who had such scandals in his past would be unelectable.

How things have changed. Just consider New York State, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo –– like Gingrich, a divorcee –– thinks nothing of living with a woman to whom he is not married.

There remains a minority of the American public for whom such things still matter –– hence Gingrich’s recent public acknowledgement and ham-handed explanation of his moral failings and the weak, defensive utterances of one of Cuomo’s supporters, the Catholic Bishop of Albany –– but most people today probably don’t think a politician’s sexual misconduct or marital failings have much, if any, bearing on whether or not he should be allowed to have an office of public trust.

Sure, we’ll hear an outcry and recriminations –– often politically opportunistic — but for the hypocrisy of standing for traditional morality in public while flouting those standards in private, and not for adultery or divorce per se.

As I said, in the past things were very different. Politicians cheated on their wives, but they did it secretly: Harding, FDR, JFK, LBJ, etc. And if they divorced –– or even worse, divorced and remarried –– they could almost certainly count on not getting reelected.

I’m old enough to remember a time when elected officials caught with their pants down still had the integrity and decency to resign, or at least could be shamed into resigning.

Then Bill Clinton dishonored himself, his wife, his family and his nation through perjury and adultery — and since most everyone already knew he had no shame anyway, he set his jaw in defiance and steadfastly refused to spare himself and us additional embarrassment. His supporters circled the wagons and solemnly pronounced that perjury is really not that big a deal as long as you’re lying to a judge about sex –– or perhaps they meant, as long as you’re a Democratic president.

It was a bad precedent. Since then, more and more politicians, Democrats and Republicans, attempt to follow Clinton’s example rather than resign when their misconduct comes to light. On the GOP side, despite the cringe-inducing revelations about Sen. Larry Craig and South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, both men insisted on staying in office.

But can we really blame elected officials for acting as if their scandals don’t make them unworthy of public trust, when we look at how we live our own lives?

As I’ve observed before in this column, two or three generations ago divorce was still rather rare and was a crippling scandal not just for politicians but for anyone. Sex out of wedlock has always been around and always will be, but a strong public stigma against it made it much, much less common and kept it out of public view.

Now we live in a culture where divorce, including serial divorce and remarriage, is common, where hardly anyone bats an eye at premarital cohabitation or illegitimate birth –– most U.S. children today are born out of wedlock and/or live without a father –– where pornography consumption is widespread and where a TV show airing on something calling itself The Learning Channel presents polygamy as just another lifestyle.

When most of us live like that, how can we disapprove of hypocritical, unfaithful, divorcing politicians?

If we hold marriage and family so cheaply, if our word given to our spouses in the sight of God and man really means little or nothing after all, if the physical, emotional and spiritual well-being of our children really isn’t as important to us as we like to pretend, then we simply have no business expecting our leaders to be paragons of virtue, honesty and honor.

Don’t look for trustworthy government when we can’t even trust ourselves.

Community editor Jared Olar may be reached at jolar@pekintimes.com. The views expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the Pekin Daily Times.