This article was updated on August 23.
In 1998, President Bill Clinton and White House intern Monica Lewinsky engaged in an act that would forever leave its mark on American politics, not to mention a certain blue dress. It was the day that doomed the reputation of one of our most popular presidents and transformed Capitol Hill into The Real World.
Since the notorious Lewinsky scandal, Americans have started looking at politicians as characters in a reality show. We have lost sight of the issues, opting instead to look for controversy in our nation’s leaders. And it seems as though, like in reality television, our politicians feel inclined to deliver.
“Obama Beats Weiner”--New York Post
“Weiner Lets it All Hang Out”--Huffington Post
“Little Weiner In The Oven”--The Daily News
“A Tough News Package to Handle”—Time
Anthony Weiner is the poster boy for the 21st century scandal. He never engaged in any sexual acts with women other than his wife. He never broke any laws within the bounds of the legal system or his marriage. Everything he did was conducted in cyberspace--a place where nothing is private. Since his crimes were not crimes, merely colossal embarrassments, the media has treated it as a joke. Anthony Weiner has become a walking euphemism, an embodiment of his over-publicized member.
But after all the laughs at his expense, talking only of how closely his name resembled the focus of his indiscretion, he was pressured by most, including his own party, to step down. He was booted out of office not by the law, but rather public opinion. “I urge Congressman Weiner to seek that help without the pressures of being a member of Congress,” said House minority leader Nancy Pelosi at a press conference.
Due to the nature of Weiner’s misdeeds, he is viewed as a deviant who must be quarantined. And since there are photos to prove his fallibility, it is all the more important to remove him from the public eye.
Newt Gingrich has had two affairs over the course of his career, one of which coincided with the Lewinsky scandal. Each infidelity ended in marriage, divorcing the first for the second. Despite his lack of moral compass, Gingrich was never ousted from politics. Instead, he is one of the forerunners for the 2012 presidential election.
What makes Gingrich untouchable and Weiner so easily rubbed out? Perhaps infidelity has become too common of a controversy. Weiner is like that fancy new sports car of scandals--you’ve never seen it before and you just can’t take your eyes off it.
And then there’s Dominique Strauss-Kahn. The former IMF director was charged with the sexual assault of a Manhattan housekeeper who claims that he tried to rape her and forced her to perform sexual acts against her will. However, the case against Strauss-Kahn has fallen apart. According to an August 23 New York Times article, the charges against Strauss-Kahn have been dismissed.
Authorities reportedly discovered that various cash deposits had been made in the victim’s name. One such deposit was allegedly made by a man who was recorded urging her to charge Strauss-Kahn with sexual harassment. The best-case scenario for Strauss-Kahn is that he gets to trade a sexual assault charge for a sex scandal. He can go home to his wife having proved that he didn’t forcibly have sex with anyone outside his marriage. He can claim he did so consensually.
In other parts of the world, however, there seems to be a more clear separation of a politician’s political and personal life. In France, unlike the U.S., not everyone gets thrown into the tabloid column. François Mitterrand, French President from 1981 to 1995, had extramarital affairs over the course of his marriage and political career, including a longtime mistress who bore him a daughter.
Surely these indiscretions tainted his constituents’ perceptions of him as a husband, but throughout his career, he was viewed as a good president. People judged him by his national decision-making abilities, not his personal ones.
Sometimes the delineation between a politician’s personal and professional lives is not so clear-cut. Sometimes a politician does something that taints every aspect of his character. Sometimes there’s a John Edwards. Edwards allegedly spent campaign donations to cover up his affair and subsequent child born out of wedlock. Edwards was indicted in June, but according to a June 3 Washington Post article, “The indictment triggered immediate criticism from a range of campaign finance and legal experts, who said the government’s case is unprecedented and appears weak.” The question remains as to whether Edwards’ actions actually qualify as crimes.
Then there is the former California governor. When news broke that Arnold Schwarzenegger had a child born out of wedlock, it wasn’t viewed so much as a scandal than as a plot point in a film; an unfortunate turn for the heroine of the story, Maria Shriver.
At the end of the day, what makes our politicians so ripe for the picking? Does their power make them feel invulnerable? Do they think that a different set of rules applies to them? Or is it because we portray them as celebrities--movie stars, minus the good looks and talent?
Whatever the reason, why should we care? In the end, what does it matter if Congressman Weiner sent racy photos or if Bill Clinton did ruin a perfectly good dress? We should not elect our officials based on their Twitter accounts or Facebook profiles. And if they do misbehave in their personal lives, we should be happy that they avoid mischief in their professional ones.
Photo of President Bill Clinton: World Economic Forum, Flickr