It is Sunday afternoon, preferably before the end of the cold war. The local NFL team’s game has just wrapped up its televised run, whether it was yourself or your spouse watching, and the children are out playing in the neighborhood, or perhaps on the Nintendo. You put your feet up on the sofa, settle your glasses on your nose, and open up the New York Post. A homemade Philly cheesesteak sandwich, or a burger from the backyard grill, and driven home, as it were, by a glass of wine, or a can or three of some appropriately thin and tasteless mass-produced American beer, have put you in the right mood. The sofa cushions are soft underneath you, the air hums with the sounds of distant lawn mowers. In these blissful circumstances, what is it that you want to read about?
Naturally, about a sex scandal. But what kind of sex scandal? If one examines the sex scandals which have given the greatest amount of pleasure to the American public, one finds a fairly strong family resemblance running through the greater number of them. Our golden age of sex scandals, mostly of the Washington variety, seems to have been between 1963, after which the usual code of silence regarding presidential misbehavior was lifted for good, and the early-mid 2000s. And the sex scandals which have stood the test of time are the following: Wilbur Mills and and the Silver Slipper; Wayne Hays; Gary Hart; Bill Clinton’s more benign trysts, including Monica; Eliot Spitzer; and Mark Sanford of Appalachian Trail fame. The latter’s eventual rehabilitation from his scandal, however, broke the precedent that a politician’s career must forever lay in tatters after his mistress, or mistresses, are exposed, thus ending the sex scandal’s golden age. (Conservatives may argue that Clinton broke this first; however, the fact that he was impeached at all, followed many years later by his wife’s defeat at the polls, suggest House Clinton was indeed irrevocably crippled by the scandal and by Ken Starr.)
Of the above-mentioned six cases, countless articles, books, TV episodes, and documentaries have been produced. It is difficult to believe that any recent American sex scandal will be remembered so long and so intimately — certainly not as fondly, as the prevalent kind of sex scandal has been changing. The most infamous scandal of recent years was the Anthony Weiner saga. Before returning to this pitiful and sordid case, which is only interesting from a sociological and perhaps a legal point of view, let me try to define what it is that the readers of tabloids and gossip sites mean when they say fretfully that ‘you never seem to get a good sex scandal nowadays’.
In considering the six cases I listed above, one can start by considering the motives. Sex was present for all of them, of course — but so was a sense of power, and perhaps decadence. In none of these cases were the perpetrators out to harm someone directly, although they were of course too self-centered or short-sighted to consider the unintended harm caused to the wives, the mistresses, and themselves. In more than half the cases, the desire was to secure a permanent mistress or concubine, perhaps because the politician viewed her as a natural reward for his station in life. Other cases involved a more immature, almost college-level fling; but in any event, the benefit gained by the politician almost certainly was not worth the work put into the failed efforts at secrecy, let alone the cost to his career and home life after the exposure. And in every case there was some dramatic coincidence or detail that no novelist would dare to make up, such as Gary Hart posing for a photograph with his mistress on his lap while wearing a shirt that said “Monkey Business Crew” after literally daring the press to find evidence on him, or Wilbur Mills attempting to outright purchase the strip club in which his paramour plied her trade, or a noted prosecutor of sex workers becoming known as “Client 9” of a sex worker.
With all this in mind one can construct what would be, from a New York Post reader’s point of view, the ‘perfect’ sex scandal, although none of the above are exactly perfect. The perpetrator must be a politician, as Americans hold inexplicable expectations of their public officials that they do not for, say, their business moguls. And, he must be a politician of a certain level of influence — a mere state senator or even U.S. House backbencher being insufficient to arouse our interest. He must be married, naturally, and also boast a policy background to invoke hypocrisy with his actions in some way, whether it be a “family values” stance or Spitzer’s aforementioned war on prostitution. He should go astray through cherishing a guilty passion for his intern or perhaps a sex worker, and should gleefully and with total abandon embrace his infidelity. And — this is key, as we shall soon see — his nefarious desires must also receive the enthusiastic consent of the mistress. At some point in the affair, the politician and mistress must share a trust and bond, perhaps even love, against the great danger that could, and eventually would, tear their relationship asunder.
Having decided on infidelity, the politician should plan it all with the utmost cunning, and only slip up over some tiny unforeseeable detail. In the last analysis, he shall decide on infidelity as less damaging to his career than a messy and very public divorce, as even today divorces remain astonishingly rare among top office-holders as opposed to, say, investment bankers, let alone the more influential men of Hollywood. With this kind of background, a sex scandal can have dramatic and even tragic qualities which make it memorable and excite pity for all three primary parties: wronged wife, perpetrator, and mistress.
Now compare this to the Anthony Weiner scandals. There were no depth of feelings to them. The background was not the yielding to the temptations of women other than his wife, but a bored, psychopathic congressman imagining himself as being 20 years his own junior, trolling Twitter for girls the way you or I would browse Tinder. There existed no feelings of trust or emotional connection between Weiner and his various online flirts. One gets the feeling the motivation was not illicit love, or even lust, but Weiner’s desire to show just how tough and powerful he was behind his actions. He acted with the utmost callousness not only of his targets and of Huma Abedin, but even of himself, leaving as he did a vast online trail of recorded dirt.
In this, Weiner presaged all the sorry, one-sided scandals exposed by the #MeToo wave, from John Conyers to Trent Franks to Blake Farenthold, let alone all the Harvey Weinsteins of the private sector. None of the husband-mistress emotional bond so essential for the golden-age Washington sex scandal is ever present for these, giving way instead to a gross, sweaty desperation of men never able to accept their own blunt unattractiveness to young people of their desired gender.
Also, passing mention must be made of the David Petraeus / Paula Broadwell situation. It indeed briefly thrilled Washington in a way most sorely missed, with such delectable details as the mistress’ jealously of other women; the fact that she herself was married, yet clearly more infatuated with her lover than with her husband; and the presence of a shirtless FBI agent, showing up for murky reasons. Yes, it resembled many aspects of a golden-age sex scandal, save one: even more than Mark Sanford, the straying husband survived with his legacy mostly intact, and without even Sanford’s period of repentance before he again sought public office. Yes, he had to resign as CIA head, but Petraeus was instead almost immediately given a sinecure position with a private boutique firm, his financial security and position in society thus secured for life.
But in any event, it is difficult to believe that the Anthony Weiner will be so long remembered as the old, grand Washington sex scandals, products of a stable society where the all-prevailing hypocrisy did at least ensure that crimes as serious as infidelity should have strong emotions behind them.
(in honor, of course, of the Old Master.)