Europeans often look at Americans with great wonder, especially in terms of Americans’ quirky puritanity on certain moral issues. In particular, Europeans can never quite understand why Americans are so concerned about their leaders’ marital fidelity.
I just read this op-ed, “Our Ready Embrace of Those Cheating Pols” in The Washington Post by Pamela Druckerman. Druckerman goes through the recent history of how the general US public has viewed both presidents’ extramarital love lives and marital infidelity in general. According to her piece, Americans have become stricter in their expectation of fidelity, while previously such “cheating” was considered a mere pecadillo.
The most interesting argument in her article about why Americans have become more demanding of their spouses and presidents’ sex lives is due to the fact that women are more economically independent from their husbands. Thus, women are simply no longer willing to stay in cheating relationships, especially because they no longer have to. Thus, what appears to be prudish and uptight to Europeans is actually a sign of a more egalitarian society, at least in terms of women’s issues. In any event, here is the op-ed:
Our Ready Embrace of Those Cheating Pols
By Pamela Druckerman
Sunday, July 15, 2007; B01
Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton were a picture-perfect couple as they campaigned in Iowa recently. In between political remarks, they held hands, hugged and exchanged intimate whispers. And yet even some supporters were surely wondering: How on Earth can they still be married? And could his philandering ways keep her from reaching the White House?
Hillary Clinton’s legendary endurance of her husband’s extramarital trysts haunts her presidential candidacy. But then, there’s no shortage of adultery hovering over the current race: Rudy Giuliani’s awkward transition into his third marriage, John McCain’s overlapping relationships with his first and second wives and potential candidate Newt Gingrich’s acknowledged “periods of weakness.” Mitt Romney seems to be one of the few major candidates without marital baggage — save for a great-grandfather who was a polygamist.
The poll numbers would seem to be ominous for adulterers. In a Newsweek survey taken earlier this year, 43 percent of Americans and more than half of Republican evangelicals said they wouldn’t vote for a candidate who had an extramarital affair. In a 2006 Gallup poll on moral issues, Americans said that adultery was worse than human cloning.
So why is Giuliani a front-runner for the Republican nomination, with strong support from evangelicals? Why is Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa muddling through an adultery crisis with his aspirations for higher office apparently intact?
The answer isn’t in the polls, where people say what they think they should say. It’s in American bedrooms. The changing way we treat politicians’ infidelity reflects the changing way we handle such affairs in our own lives.
Back in the days when John F. Kennedy took women for a dip in the presidential pool without a peep from the press, Americans didn’t automatically assume that cheaters had personality defects. To the contrary, their behavior could be seen as glamorous or as evidence of a passionate streak. In 1973, slightly less than 70 percent of Americans said that adultery was “always wrong,” compared with 82 percent in 2004. Though Americans generally agreed that infidelity was bad, it was an offense they could live with. “We didn’t have guilt then,” a retiree in her 70s now living in Florida told me, reflecting on the affairs she and her married girlfriends had in the 1960s.
When gender roles were more distinct — most husbands went to work while their wives tended house — Americans were more comfortable with the idea that married couples might keep secrets from each other. In “President Kennedy: Profile of Power,” Richard Reeves wrote that a few members of Kennedy’s inner circle had moral qualms about helping to arrange the president’s romps, but most considered philandering a harmless hobby (“It took less time than tennis, and partners were often easier to find.”). Younger aides were in awe of the president’s sexual prowess. Few people questioned why Jacqueline Kennedy soldiered on.
Back then, a man could safely boast about his extramarital exploits. Lyndon B. Johnson so detested being in Kennedy’s sexual shadow that he reportedly said, “I’ve had more women by accident than he’s had on purpose.”
The fidelity rules, for presidents and for ordinary people, began changing in the 1970s. Most states adopted no-fault divorce, transforming marriage from a durable container for all kinds of transgressions into a disposable one. Indiscretions that once were tolerated suddenly became grounds for dismissal. And Americans increasingly had the means to walk away, because more women worked. As tolerance for infidelity fell, the national divorce rate doubled between 1967 and 1979. A generation of brides and grooms read one another the one-strike rule: Cheat, and it’s over.
These new demands on marriage fanned the fledgling industry of couples therapy. Psychologists had once assumed that only one fragile psyche could be dealt with at a time, but in the 1970s, they decided that “the relationship” was itself an entity that could be studied and prodded. The ranks of couples therapists quickly multiplied, creating an army of people preaching that an affair isn’t just about sex; it’s a symptom of other problems.
Thus by 1987, when presidential candidate Gary Hart was found to have spent the night with a blonde who wasn’t his wife, the senator lasted only one more week in the race. A cheating politician, like a cheating husband, was thought to be capable of any manner of other sin.
It was no accident that the movie “Fatal Attraction” — in which a married man’s affair spirals into murder — came out a few months after Hart withdrew. Hollywood embraced the new thinking about affairs and added its own dramatic twist: There’s no such thing as a harmless affair, because adultery unleashes a torrent of chaos that threatens the family and leads to death. AIDS was picking up velocity around the same time, sharpening the message that “promiscuity kills.”
Americans took these ideas to heart. In a 1994 survey of 24 countries, we disapproved of adultery more than people anywhere but Ireland and the Philippines (our former Cold War foe Russia was the most permissive). And more than 25,000 marriage and family therapists — up from 3,000 in 1970 — were teaching us that recovering from infidelity was an all-consuming process that could take years. Many believed that healthy couples didn’t keep secrets, so the “offending spouse” should tell the “betrayed spouse” every detail. America’s new mantra on affairs became: “It’s not the sex, it’s the lying.”
By the late 1990s, Americans increasingly viewed infidelity not just as a relationship problem but as evidence of a physical disorder or a larger societal problem. Support groups for “betrayed spouses” and straying “sexual addicts” began appearing nationwide and on the Internet. As the topic came out of the closet, infidelity experts arose; the chief qualification some of them offered was having cheated or been cheated on.
When Bill Clinton’s dalliances with a White House intern became public in 1998, the president’s antagonists in Congress tried to play a primitive game of gotcha. Clinton wisely followed the therapeutic playbook that Americans were following at home. First he came out of denial and admitted to “a critical lapse in judgment and a personal failure.” Then he went on tour to apologize for having “wronged” his supporters. Ironically, the detailed disclosures in the Starr Report mirrored the confessions Americans were offering in their own therapists’ offices and may have helped the nation trust its president again. Soon after the Republican-led House voted to impeach Clinton, his approval rating jumped to an all-time high of 73 percent.
Not everyone was satisfied with Clinton’s disclosures. Therapeutic thinking had infiltrated the White House, too, with colleagues playing the role of betrayed spouse. In 2004, David Remnick wrote in the New Yorker that the relationship between Clinton and Al Gore “collapsed nearly into silence” after it became clear that Clinton had initially lied to his vice president about the affair. According to Remnick, this distrust contributed to Gore’s decision not to enlist Clinton in his 2000 bid for the presidency.
The American public was satisfied on all points but one: Hillary Clinton appeared to tolerate her husband’s repeated infidelities. That’s not part of the script. Marriage experts were flooded with phone calls demanding to know whether the Clinton marriage was merely a political arrangement; many people found it inconceivable that the relationship could still be based on love.
But now the country may have caught up with the Clintons. The latest thinking from therapists and religious groups is that affairs need not be a marital death sentence. Some evangelical and other Christian congregations are so alarmed by rampant divorce that they’re counseling people to work through their problems rather than split up. Therapists and self-appointed marriage experts are increasingly promoting the same message. And as children of the divorce explosion in the late 1970s now hit bumps in their own marriages, they’re rethinking the one-strike rule.
That, combined with the fact that we’ve now been through it before, means that Americans are less likely to sound the death knell for straying politicians. But while fidelity isn’t strictly required, a love story is. (Which could potentially spell bad news for Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana and his forays into the “escort” world.) In private life, the most accepted excuse for cheating is that you fell out of love with one person and in love with another.
Presidential hopefuls are taking heed. Giuliani is careful to show that although his marriage to his current wife, Judith, may have been forged through infidelity, she’s the love of his life. An ally of Gingrich’s recently told a reporter that although the former House speaker is on his third marriage, “this time, it’s really love.” No doubt Bill and Hillary were trying to make a similar point in Iowa.
Given the patchy marital histories of many candidates, we can expect lots more lovin’ on the campaign trail.
Pamela Druckerman is the author of “Lust in Translation: The Rules of Infidelity from Tokyo to Tennessee.”