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The Body Politic

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Illustration by Robbie Conal

Despite recent events, not all politicians are rutting bores

By John Yewell

THERE IS A CERTAIN serendipity to the fact that Clinton's coup d'état trial is about to come to an end virtually on Valentine's Day. From the beginning of this national body politic scandal, the role of love has been overshadowed by sex, lies and politics. It has ever been thus.

By the time the Prez dropped trou in that White House hallway, it had been quite a while since our last public presidential sex scandal. In 1884, The Evening Telegram, a Buffalo newspaper, outed bachelor presidential candidate Grover Cleveland for having a 10-year-old illegitimate son with a woman named Maria Halpin. Cleveland never denied the accusation, but the press had a field day anyway: "Ma, Ma, where's my Pa? Gone to the White House, ha ha ha!" went the ditty.

Cleveland was a Democrat who, like Clinton, had avoided the draft (he bought his way out of the Civil War). Also like Clinton, Cleveland beat a Republican challenger, James Blaine, in a close election despite scandal. It only goes to show that, even then, Americans were willing to overlook sexual dalliance for the sake of politics.

It was married presidential hopeful Gary Hart in 1984, a century after Cleveland, who initiated the modern era of political sex scandals when a photo of him in flagrante delicto with Donna Rice on board the yacht Monkey Business was published.

When Gennifer Flowers bloomed onto the scene in 1992, threatening the Clinton campaign juggernaut, it had been 30 years since John Kennedy had turned the White House into a frat house--which the Kennedy mystique managed to keep suppressed for decades. Later in 1992, news of Sen. Robert Packwood's grabby womanizing broke, and would lead three years later to his resignation.

It's easy enough to see why, over the years, we've pretty much pegged politicians in general for philanderers--although prior to Clinton we went through a series of presidential libido killers in LBJ, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush. Larry Flynt swore the rogues gallery of recent politico sex cheats did not stop at Clinton, Henry Hyde, Dan Burton and Bob Livingston, and we weren't shocked to hear it, even if his promised list proves to have been a tease all along too.

There are plenty of reasons to doubt the honor of politicians; examples abound. Even stand-up guy Bob Dole dumped a longtime spouse for a trophy wife. After he was seriously wounded in World War II, an occupational therapist named Phyllis Holden nursed him back to health. They married, but years later, after Dole began to gain fame in Congress, he walked into the room and out of the blue asked her for a divorce. Elizabeth entered the picture a few years later.

Perhaps the most notorious modern example of disgraceful marital behavior is the well-publicized case of Newt Gingrich, who served divorce papers on his wife as she lay sick with cancer in a hospital bed.

Power is an aphrodisiac, to paraphrase Henry Kissinger--who was getting some pretty high-profile dates until the press discovered they were covers for him flying off to Paris on weekends to negotiate with the North Vietnamese. Senators and members of Congress are the political equivalent of rock stars, and it can be hard to keep your wits about you with groupies waiting back stage. Then, just when sex in politics started making female political leaders appear more palatable, someone like Rep. Helen Chenowith of Washington state admitted to an affair, proving that as women get more power they are learning to be as randy and stupid as men.

Clinton's I-feel-your-pain electoral come-on notwithstanding, we don't tend to view politicians as accessible. Like actors, they appeal to us to love them for the role they play, and we respond with votes instead of applause. As we become desensitized to them as individuals, we treat them more like Hollywood celebrities.

Catching celebrities in sex scandals tends to rehumanize them. A prominent politician getting a little on the side may not elevate him in our collective esteem, but it does bring him back down to our level. Think of Jesse Ventura, the new governor of Minnesota, as a raunchy sex symbol; then his fluke election makes more sense. He's one of us.

But on the whole, is this debased image fair? In the spirit of Valentine's Day, isn't it worth asking, What of love? Have we become so inured to tawdry sex that we've given up on finding any nobility in our politicians? Has the search for votes, the desire to please, the willingness to compromise--in short, the pandering--inoculated us against any benefit of the doubt regarding the better angels of their nature? Have we unfairly maligned and dehumanized politicians?

I want to say no. But the fault cannot be laid entirely at the feet of our harried elected officials. When I was covering Minnesota politics I once spoke with an aide to U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone, perhaps the most liberal member of Congress. Wellstone has been married to his wife, Sheila, for 35 years, and the devotion between them is clear and charming. And yet, the aide told me, she never leaves Wellstone alone in his office with the door closed with an attractive woman, no matter who she is.

"As a senator, he's one of the 100 most powerful people in the world," she said. "This town is full of women who would try to seduce him in a heartbeat."

It's a wonder any political marriages survive.

And yet they do. Perhaps the most recent success story are the Reagans. Sure, he divorced Jane Wyman, and his politics may disagree with you, but there is no mistaking the affection between Ron and Nancy. She still calls him Ronnie, for goodness sake.

Jimmy Carter admitted to having lust in his heart, but could anyone look at those photos of intimate breakfasts on the White House porch between Carter and wife Rosalynn and not be touched by their closeness?

I have met too many devoted public servants in genuine, loving relationships to believe that the most recent spate of peccadilloes indicates some epidemic of infidelity. I tend to take the French view of these things in the first place. The French, by the way, do not excuse such behavior, as is often erroneously believed. They merely view them as private matters unrelated to politics and confined to discussion between you, your partner and your conscience.

So when picking out a Valentine's Day card this year, consider forgoing the clever Monica and Bill offerings. Take advantage of the holiday to make a statement about the triumph of love over cynicism. It's a good bet that's what Bill and Hillary will do.

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From the February 11-17, 1999 issue of Metro.

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