Over the past several weeks, as Jacob Zuma's saga turned into a major national and international story, people have muddied the waters with attacks on President's morality or spirited defenses of Zulu polygamy, rather than tackle the real issue. Power.
About a decade ago, I lived in Japan and my office hosted an university intern – a very bright, attractive young woman who was using her summer vacation to learn more about Japan and how an embassy operated, rather than spending her summer on the California beaches, perfecting her killer tan. About the same time this young woman was working for me, you might well remember that another intern was achieving fame (or infamy) over at the White House. Oh uh, you might be thinking, here comes one of those public confession moments popular from the daytime television talk shows that are meant to get all the really embarrassing stuff out of the way as quickly as possible so the sinner could “move on”.
No such luck. In fact, back then, my wife and I ended up discussing that other guy’s behavior towards his intern – and what the effect of his behavior would be on the success of his presidency, on the country – and ultimately on its international image and standing. But, our conversation did turn personal in one way – what would have happened to me if I had behaved the same way with my intern that Bill Clinton had done with his. The answer of course is that if I had behaved the same way as the leader of the free world had done, I would have been out of a job, unemployed and on the streets in about a “New York minute”. While I agreed with Clinton’s ideas and governmental policies, his personal behavior was gag reflex-inducing and it very nearly cost him the presidency, his political reputation – not to mention his marriage.
But the key thing about Clinton’s adventure (and his ongoing exploration of contemporary American social mores) is that it in many ways it was not really about sex at all; well, ok, partly it was about the sex, but it was much more about that ecstasy of power. On the one hand, Clinton had access and opportunity to do whatever he wanted, precisely because of the extraordinary power imbalance between president and intern – a point that has been the feminist line about coerced sex for years: it’s not about the sex, it’s really about the exercise of nearly unbridled power. A man who can order the nuclear destruction of the world probably has more than the usual amount of leverage (and the right pheromones) with a star-struck twenty-something who has an as-yet-unresolved crush on a virile, vigorous leader of the free world. But, also, a place like the White House that comes with some world-class fawning, pomp and circumstance, also helps create the illusion the rules only apply to lesser mortals – not to the rulers of the universe. But turn things around a bit further – we can also say that this very elixir of power and invulnerability, when it affixed to a man like Bill Clinton, also becomes a powerful temptation for someone like Monica Lewinsky to try to gain access to or capture in some way too?
The progenitors of such stories, of course, go way, way back. Think Paris’ abduction of Helen – the face that launched those thousand ships – triggering two decades of the Trojan War and the back-story for the whole Iliad. Or, perhaps King David’s manipulative behavior towards his loyal subaltern, Nathan, so he could get just a little bit closer to Nathan’s widow, Bathsheba?
Maybe our starting point should be Darwin’s second explanation of the workings of evolutionary selection – sexual selection. Think of the energy male animals channel toward demonstrating their virility for breeding purposes via extravagant displays of feathers, or with the horns and antlers for ritualized combat to win the right to breed with females. Or, perhaps closer to our own kind, consider men swanking around in their Armani suits, behind the wheels of their Lamboghinis and Ferraris, or through bad-boy sports bar behavior to capture the attention of a really sharp-looking woman sitting at the next table.
My favorite book about American politics – really, politics anywhere – is Robert Penn Warren’s beautifully lyric novel, “All the King’s Men”. Written in the 1940s as a fictionalized retelling of the life of the assassinated Louisiana governor, Huey Long, “the Kingfisher”. Warren’s book is a meditation on the triangle of sex, money and political power: how political power attracts money and sexual opportunities; how money opens the doors to political power – and sex; and how sex itself is an avenue to money and power in the back rooms of political influence. “All the King’s Men” is the essential metaphorical map to guide us through the inner world and actions of a Bill Clinton, a Francois Mitterrand, a Mao Tse Tung, a Silvio Berlusconi, whole generations of Japanese power brokers – and, yes, ultimately, Jacob Zuma as well. (Of course, Mao Tse Tung has now been exposed as the man who summoned numerous young women to his bedroom, in between stints of writing his little red book.)
Let’s be clear, while polygamy may have been the starting point for this discussion, it isn’t really the issue. If it allowed under the law – as it is in South Africa in some cases, as it is throughout the Muslim world, as it was with the early Mormon communities; indeed, as it once was throughout the ancient world – it is legal – end of story. What we are really looking at are men who flaunt the norms of their own societies for their own pleasure.
As you read in the intro to this story, over the past several weeks, as Jacob Zuma’s saga turned into a major national and international story, I’ve been struck by how people have muddied the waters with spirited defenses of Zulu polygamy, rather than tackle the real issue.
Here is yet one more man, occupying a powerful position, and one who uses his position to gain sexual favors through the exercise of his power, by showing off his power, or by allowing his power to be a fatal enticement to women who are gaming their chances to snuggle up closer to power. Or as the song in “Casablanca” states the case:
“…It’s still the same old story,
A fight for love and glory,
A case of do or die.
The world will always welcome lovers,
As time goes by….”
Moreover, in Jacob Zuma’s circumstances, he’s creating a brood, now numbering at least twenty, mimicking the way ancient oriental potentates aimed to replace a competing noble clan once they had defeated them in battle. (Recent genetic research shows, for example, that about 13% of all Mongols are genetically related to thirteenth century Mongol warlord Genghis Khan!) But, let’s be clear – what we are looking at now is beyond the exercise of some ancient, traditional cultural norm. This is actually contemporary risky business that tempts and whispers into the ear, “I can do what I want, I can have my way with things, there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Consider for a moment the career trajectory of former senator John Edwards, America’s newest poster child for risky behavior. A self-made man, he became rich as a trial attorney, parleyed that wealth and fame to become a senator from North Carolina, waged a highly-regarded campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, became John Kerry’s running mate in 2004 and tried yet again to become the nominee in 2008. Now the whole thing has come undone for Edwards as the tawdry details of his affair and “love child” with Rielle Hunter, a filmmaker working on his campaign, that took place while his wife was being treated for cancer have all come out in public. Tacky, yes, but again, thoroughly in keeping with the template for politicians believe rules are simply putty in their hands. In Edwards’ case, tempting the fates, they even made a sex video – presumably as a private keepsake rather than for later use as a campaign advertisement – but exploring that must be another whole column. The Republicans, of course, have had their own version in former congressman Newt Gingrich who cheated on his second wife with the woman who became his third (consecutive) wife. He divorced his first wife while she was in the hospital – also for cancer. The late French president, Francois Mitterrand managed to wave off criticism of his life choices – including an illegitimate daughter – with the Gallic shrug the French have perfected, while Silvio Berlusconi seems to have used his vivid, tabloid reputation to enhance his political appeal – is this beginning to sound just a bit familiar?
Besides shrugging off grown-up standards, Zuma’s behavior has – perhaps incurably – cheapened South Africa’s political discourse. In recent days I have watched and listened to TV and radio news analysts, presenters and talk show hosts discussing the possibilities Jacob Zuma is a classic sex addict, using the kind of clinical phraseology that belongs in a sex therapist’s consulting rooms. This parallels the cheapened public discourse the trailed behind Bill Clinton as he first denied a relationship, then fell back for his defense on television with bizarre syntactical formulations like, “it depends what ‘is’ is” and then, ultimately, for a defense on the precise elements of his anatomy.
At the minimum, this is letting air out of any positives from the president’s international circumstances and status. Who, when next meeting Jacob Zuma at some international conference or symposium, will not wonder what his eye contact or smile really means? There is almost certainly a pre-set caption for news photographs in newspapers around the world that will read something like, “Jacob Zuma, the South African president with three (or four or five) wives and twenty children from his miscellaneous marriages and various liaisons…” that will diminish the man, regardless of any domestic success.
But, curiously, even unbelievably, at home, Jacob Zuma continues to have his vociferous defenders on this front. Not for his policies, not for his political survivability, not even for his agility in keeping the parts of his fractious political alliance on the same song sheet – but for his role as an exemplar of both polygamy and, now, as a swordsman of note outside of marriage. The only conclusion seems to be is that some people admire and envy his ability (opportunity, means and motive) to carry on this way, just as Silvio Berlusconi has a base of immutable support, impervious to decay. In fact, it may be uncomfortable to say, but, for some, this support is actually being enhanced as the latest story dribbles out. You can almost hear the conversation in the taverns, clubs and shebeens that begins with: “Whoa, the man is 67 already, he tells the world at that Davos thing he can keep all his wives happy…and he has 20, count ’em, 20 children that he knows of! What a man.” The only tiny little cognitive dissonance: this seems to overwhelm completely that little problem that exists between the message of his life and his government’s message on HIV/AIDS.
Besides all the policy down sides is the real and very obvious problem that Jacob Zuma’s proclivity for procreation has become the South African story for the international media. (Anyone still remember that small, insignificant soccer thing in June, what was it again?) And that only helps to bring back into the foreground the now-hoary view of South Africa as a land of crazy people with no control over themselves or their behavior. In a faceoff between the stunning positive international impact of the Oscar-nominated film, “Invictus” and the newly released “Jacob Zuma – the bio-pic movie”, the winner is clear.
And so is the loser. This country.
By Brooks Spector
Photo: Composite of Reuters photos: Bill Clinton, Jacob Zuma and John Edwards.