The Edwards Scandal: Sexual Ethics and the Other “Two Americas”
| August 10, 2008
As yet another sex scandal broke involving a powerful male politician, I found it mind-boggling that this too familiar scenario was unfolding once again. In an age of constant media surveillance, didn’t anyone learn anything from the feckless Gary Hart, oh, so long ago?
And what were the TV and newspaper pundits going to make of this one? Would it break down along gender lines, with the guys taking a “boys will be boys” approach, and the women being censorious, and identifying with the wronged wife? I’ll admit that I kind of expected that, although Americans can be pretty judgmental regardless of gender.
To my surprise, there was scatter all across the board, with some men outraged by Edwards, and some women taking the “he made a mistake. Let it go” line. James Carville, in a televised interview with Diane Sawyer, commented that Edwards “had made a human mistake. He didn’t steal anything, didn’t start a war… He must be feeling terrible. I feel more sorry for Senator Edwards than anything.” Sorry? As if this were something that happened to him? Roger Simon of MSNBC stated that he refused to see John Edwards as a victim. Gail Collins wrote in the New York Times, “When it comes to politicians and sex, our expectations are not that great. Human nature being what it is, there will continue to be adultery, no matter how many instructive scandals they’re exposed to,” while Maureen Dowd noted a day later that, “Certain men assume that power confers sexual privilege.”
Well, perhaps it does. As John Edwards, himself, noted in his Nightline confession, “I’m not the first person to do this.” True enough. As Pat Buchanan laughingly commented on Hardball the evening that the Edwards scandal broke in the mainstream media, if adultery ruled out election, we would have lost Woodrow Wilson, FDR, JFK, LBJ, Bill Clinton and Ike, not to mention, guest E. Steven Collins added, “close to half the Congress and most of the Senate.” Chuck Todd, on Hardball, made a particularly interesting observation, noting that he’d “always said that you have to be a little bit different to run for office…You just have to be wired a bit differently”.
What I found most fascinating, however, was the fact that no one in the media made mention of the fact that the sexual scandals all involved male politicians, or questioned why women with political power seem not to have been, or be involved in the sexual escapades that plague powerful men. Granted, there aren’t as many: women haven’t yet, in America, reached the same level of power as men, but the number of women representatives and senators are increasing, we’ve had two women as secretary of state, one as national security advisor, a female attorney general, a speaker of the house, and 35 percent of all state governor appointed posts are now women. Are we just better people than the men? Is it really all about testosterone? Or, perhaps, we just keep a secret better. What can we expect of women when more of us attain positions of power? Will we, too, be flooding the airwaves with stories about our sexual liaisons with subordinate men or, for that matter, women?
I rather doubt it, at least until there have been some significant changes in the patriarchal structure of our, and most other societies. As long as a culture is strongly patriarchal, most women will be sexually drawn to powerful men at least on a superficial level, and, conversely, men will tend to be turned on by dependent women. I strongly believe that these liaisons are, like rape, informed more by power than they are by sexual desire.
A memorable incident during my psychoanalytic training happened when I began seeing as a patient an extremely handsome Welsh poet. I was thrown by my sexual feelings towards him, and confessed this to my supervisor, a female analyst in her seventies. She laughed, and said, “Give it three weeks. His dependency will show itself, and you’ll fall out of love.” She was right, of course, although I’m not sure that she would have been had the analyst been a man, and the patient a woman.
Further, coming out of the same patriarchal structure, women feel empowered at becoming the sexual choice of a powerful man. In a Los Angeles Times Op-Ed, Sarah Miller recounts that, sometime before her affair with John Edwards, Rielle Hunter told her, “I am going to be famous…. Rich and famous. I am going to meet a rich, powerful man.” Men, on the other hand, feel more powerful acquiring the trophy of a subordinate woman, and less empowered when they, themselves become the subordinate lover of a powerful woman.
There are historical precedents for women rulers taking lovers; one has only to think of Cleopatra, or Elizabeth I, but this has not been the case in recent times. There has been nary a rumor about Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir, Indira Ghandi or Angela Merkel, to name just a few. Were these earlier societies less patriarchal?
The issue of why what Mike Lupica of The Daily News calls “Bipolar Political Disorder” seems to be prevalent among male, but not female politicians deserves some scrutiny. There are enough women in government now that male and female politicians should not all be tarred with the same brush. Perhaps, to paraphrase Senator Edwards, when it comes to the sexual ethics of the powerful, there are also “Two Americas,” not rich or poor, but male or female.