There is something about political office that either drives many men to infidelity — and the belief that the old rules don’t apply to them — or attracts the sorts of men prone to infidelity and a belief in their own exemption from the rules. Just the last few years have been remarkable for the wave of public men confessing (or being found to have) a complete inability to keep their pants on around women other than their wives.
In our fallen age, we tend to treat adultery as a personal failing. It is not. A marriage is a public institution and a public face. It is literally one of the building blocks of a civilization, because it is the smallest indivisible element of that civilization, the most compact voluntary union between two humans with internal and external mores, concerns, and promises. All of the arguments over gay marriage can be boiled down to the question of whether the inclusion of homosexual unions will have no perceptible effect on, or will further damage, an institution we have come to treat as a mere contract all too often.
And yet, for all of that faltering view of the importance of a marriage, at heart, we still understand its real and symbolic purposes. Bill Clinton’s many failings were basically known to the electorate at some level by the time he won re-election, but fatigue with his immaturity and inability to grasp the private and public harm his philandering did surely helped George W. Bush win the Presidency. John Ensign correctly perceived he needed to leave public office after his adultery destroyed his credibility with his constituents. Anthony Weiner, after weeks of absolutely ridiculous denials, did the right thing and stepped down, though one suspects that this was more a function of concern over his young marriage than the belief that his constituency would abandon him.
Not all men have the simple decency to do this. Mark Sanford, who had theretofore made the importance of responsibility a seamless line between his marriage and his public governance, rode out his term as his marriage crumbled around him. President Clinton, of course, only vaguely confessed to some sort of infidelity after he was put under oath, and then rode out his term, where a better man would have resigned. David Vitter is still in office. (Then again, he’s from Louisiana.)
John Edwards deserves a paragraph of his own.
We are inclined to believe that the unstinting adoration of legions of fans — and an inner circle who by definition are fanatically loyal to a politician — are to blame. We also heap power on the corollary strength of power as an aphrodisiac, and the sorts of men who seek that power.
I believe we’re missing a critical point. The problem is not merely the corruption of power. It is the flip side of the coin — the delusion of indispensability, a delusion brought a politician’s inner circle, by the legions of his fans (brought closer by today’s mass, instant communication streams), and, frankly, every fawning article in the nominally independent press reinforcing that image. A brave man will stand in the face of the worst storm if he perceives he is needed on the battlements. This, I suspect, is why Anthony Weiner continued for as long as he did: His legions of fans, and an adoring press, repeatedly told him by their words and their acts that he was needed at the battlements to fight the horrible, crushing wave of conservatism that led to President Obama’s election and the Democrats’ successful campaigns for Congress. That the GOP did quite well in the House and chipped away at the Democratic stranglehold in the Senate — because of those Tea Partiers! Everyone knows they’re racists! — would only have redoubled his resolve.
As an aside, I suspect this is why President Obama — whose approval rating is trailing, and whose every domestic initiative has either been an expensive failure or an expensively unpopular ratings-killer — is seeking re-election. His fans basically called him the Messiah, and he did nothing to dispel that perception. When he came into office in 2009, he let everyone know that he believed we were essentially in another depression, and when his adoring fans in the press told him he could fix it, you know he cried in his head, Yes we can! His utter failure to accomplish anything is actually totally irrelevant to his self-perception, and that is why he is out now re-enacting Al Gore’s successful 2000 campaign.
Men are basically the same the world over. In Malaysia, Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of Malaysia’s opposition, has apparently been caught in adultery, with video evidence that Darthmouth scientists say nearly certainly implicates him. The major dailies are calling on him to resign. For three years, after failing to topple the governing party in the 2008 elections, he has crisscrossed the planet telling anyone and everyone who would listen how corrupt and evil the governing party is. And yet despite all of this — despite his stated certainty that his opposition coalition of socialists, Islamists, and yuppie liberals is the only chance his country has to avoid certain doom at the hands of the centrist coalition that has been re-elected time and again in Malaysia, he has refused to resign.
He clearly believes he is needed on the walls, needed so badly that his numerous sins not only can but must be overlooked because of the cause. It is a madness no less than his apparent belief that the rules do not apply, no less for being well-intentioned, because it is destructive of a marriage, and destructive of the society that marriage builds and reflects.
It is the same delusion the world over, and the world is poorer for it.