Sex and the (politics) city

Sex and the (politics) city

Watching the mysterious goings-on in US politics as candidates and would-be candidates grapple with the role of sex in their campaigns, J. BROOKS SPECTOR reviews some of the bidding so far.

The lyrics of that wonderful song, ‘As Time Goes By’, in the classic flick, Casablanca, pretty much summed up a big chunk of the relationship between politics and sex, with the words:

“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.”

But there is one more element that must be added to this eternal equation before it is complete, and that, of course, is money. In Robert Penn Warren’s 1946 novel, All The King’s Men, a thinly veiled roman à clef about the life (and death) of Louisiana Governor Huey Long that was turned into two films and became the model for Joe Klein’s own Primary Colors novel and the film that was made of that, the novelist explored how these three elements – money, love (or sex) and power – all interacted and mutually reinforced each other. Money allowed one to buy access to power and sex; sex could get one closer to power and money; and power, of course, was the key to riches, as well as being the ultimate aphrodisiac.

It is still six months away from the first actual formal voting in the primary and caucus season and so we are still in the waning phase of the US electoral silly season. Despite this early moment, the Republicans will soon be closing in on a dozen or so declared candidates for their presidential nomination.

This growing GOP horde now includes South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham and former New York Governor George Pataki – although some of those already in – Mike Huckabee, Dr Ben Carson and Rick Santorum – are probably more likely interested in flogging their next book, or snaring a lucrative television or radio talk show contract. These candidates are now increasingly roving across the Republican political landscape.

Senator Graham is already poking at earlier entrant Senator Rand Paul over his neo-isolationist views. Meanwhile, the intra-party infighting over immigration reform has become something of a hot potato or a wild cat among the pigeons for Republicans, with Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s statements towards immigration reform gaining scorn from most of the others.

Meanwhile, a growing number of Democrats like Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley have started to nip at the heels of Hillary Clinton, the virtually anointed candidate for that party. They say they are in the race for real but some still speculate that their real goal is attempting to change her policy directions or – perhaps – to vie for vice presidential nomination.

One would think that about now would be when all these presidential aspirants would be spending time sharpening their respective images, testing and refining policy positions, and generally shaping a cogent, mature, nuanced narrative about themselves and their reasons for aiming for the highest peak in American politics. But, it almost seems as if many of them (and a few former politicians as well) have collectively decided to immerse themselves in sex and pregnancy – or at least the talking about rather strangely instead, thereby deflecting attention from all those other issues they presumably are vitally concerned with for the future of the country.

But first, a bit of history. No one would argue politicians – and especially presidents and would-be presidents – in America have been asexual beings. Collectively they have had a handle on both money and power and as noted earlier, those two have easily translated into sexual allure as well. It is widely understood the country’s third president, Thomas Jefferson, had a long-term out-of-marriage relationship with one of his personal slaves, fathering at least one child with her.

Back at the end of the 19th century, in 1888 to be exact, when Grover Cleveland was running for re-election as president, his opponents had hired small children to “invade” his campaign rallies and rush up to him, yelling, “Ma, ma, where’s my paw; gone to the White House, haw, haw, haw.” Cleveland actually had fathered an out-of-wedlock child some years earlier and acknowledged paternity. Although he lost that election, he came back and won his second term four years later.

Decades later, Franklin Roosevelt had a number of intimate relationships outside of his marriage to Eleanor. And a few years later, Dwight Eisenhower had been dogged by some very quiet rumours that during World War II, when he led Allied forces preparing to invade Nazi-held Europe, he had had a relationship with his British military driver, Kay Summersby. John Kennedy brought youth and vigour to the White House, as well as some seriously risky behaviour with women other than his wife. But in all three of these cases, the press and other politicians all behaved as if these stories were beyond public comment.

One issue, however, divorce, remained well beyond the pale. Perhaps this was because it was inevitably it became a public matter involving courts and documents such that it was impossible to hide or ignore. But perhaps, too, in the public mind, divorce violated the national ethos of the time that marked it as something shameful and embarrassing, and that it was tangible evidence of a character flaw or really bad judgment.

While Eisenhower’s election was almost inevitable, given his war hero status and the fact the country had clearly tired of twenty years of Democratic administrations, nevertheless, Adlai Stevenson’s rather public divorce clearly played into the narrative that he was not, ultimately, presidential timber. Scarcely a decade later, in 1964, Nelson Rockefeller ultimately lost his bid for the Republican nomination because of the embarrassment of his divorce and quick second marriage to his de facto partner (and the rebellion by youthful conservative intra-party rebels that gave Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater the nomination instead).

But, by the time former California governor, actor, and corporate pitchman Ronald Reagan ran for the presidential nomination and election in 1980, that very public fact of his Hollywood divorce and a second marriage had effectively become a biographical footnote, barely remarked upon, let alone seen as a character flaw of importance to voters. By then, of course, the baby boom generation was on its way to becoming a major share of the voting population, and divorce itself was quickly establishing itself as an increasing fact of life for many American families. In effect, divorce had lost its sting as a depiction of moral and social failure.

By the time Bill Clinton had been impeached, his previous extra-marital affairs and his sexual relationship with a hapless intern – including all the graphic details – became the stuff of late night television ridicule, but not the material that disqualified someone for the presidency. Of course, it also turned out that the leader of that “lynching party”, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, turned out to have his own extra-marital narrative – something that ultimately stood the story on its head.

As Gingrich left his own office in disgrace and was replaced by Illinois Congressman Dennis Hastert – apparently more for failing to lead his party to mid-term victories than his own sexual adventures – it began to seem that perhaps there really were no longer any rules in sexual conduct by elected officials. The old warhorse of a story by Louisiana “Governor-for-life” Edwin Edwards who, when asked if he would win re-election, yet again, had reportedly told the press he certainly would, unless he was found in bed with a live boy or a dead girl the day before the election, seemed to signify the new values.

Now Hastert, of course, has lately been in the news, at a time well after he had retired from Congress and gone on to a richly remunerative life of lobbying his former colleagues, but not for the reasons he might have wanted. He has been caught paying off a former student with a great deal of money – withdrawn one day at a time at an ATM – who had accused Hastert for inappropriate conduct with him way back when Hastert was a high school wrestling coach.

Still, there is always a kind of pendulum effect in politics. In recent years, many social conservatives have regrouped with a push against the liberating (or loosening, depending on your view of things) of standards in the family values arena. Social family values conservatives have been a significant share of the support for the Tea Party movement and the recent success of candidates like Republicans Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Texas Senator Ted Cruz.

And here is a clue to where politicians have stumbled on their way across the sexual frontier again. Walker, for example, managed to crow about his role in passing a law that any woman seeking an abortion in his state had to first endure and view the images from an ultrasound exam; rather insensitively dismissing any objections to this procedure by calling it just a cool bit of jelly on the belly.

Or as Walker had babbled away in a recent radio interview, “We defunded Planned Parenthood. We signed a law that requires an ultrasound, which, the thing about that, the media tried to make that sound like that was a crazy idea. Most people I talk to, whether they’re pro-life or not, I find people all the time who’ll get out their iPhone and show me a picture of their grandkids’ ultrasound and how excited they are, so that’s a lovely thing. I think about my sons are 19 and 20 and we still have their first ultrasound pictures. It’s just a cool thing out there.”

And then there has been the rather unseemly effort by candidates like Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee to seek the endorsement of the Duggar family television show on the fundamentalist Christian TLC cable channel – 19 Kids and Counting. Huckabee finally won the tussle. Now, putting aside the question of what kind of couple would willingly have nineteen natural-born children, it just turns out that this little dance may have backfired when it became known that one of the Duggar boys had confessed to inappropriate conduct with several under-age girls – including, apparently, a couple siblings.

Regardless of the potential yuck factor, Huckabee stepped right up with a ringing support for the Duggars, saying in his Facebook posting, “Janet [Huckabee] and I want to affirm our support for the Duggar family… Josh’s [the beleaguered son] actions when he was an underage teen are as he described them himself, ‘inexcusable,’ but that doesn’t mean ‘unforgivable.’ He and his family dealt with it and were honest and open about it with the victims and the authorities. No purpose whatsoever is served by those who are now trying to discredit Josh or his family by sensationalising the story. Good people make mistakes and do regrettable and even disgusting things. Today, Janet and I want to show up and stand up for our friends. Let others run from them. We will run to them with our support.”

While it might seem at first blush Huckabee’s best move would have been to run as far as possible from the Duggars, Politico argued instead that “Huckabee’s unapologetic defence of the family is less politically risky than meets the eye. He’s engaged in a battle with Rick Santorum and several other candidates for the votes of evangelicals and social conservatives — at a time when those voters feel besieged by the forces of secularism and the mainstream media. Against that backdrop, serving as a stalwart defender of one of the nation’s highest-profile evangelical families isn’t a completely illogical expenditure of political capital.” Gutsy move – maybe.

Of course sexual problems – or, rather, problems with sex – have also dogged Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders – a declared candidate for the Democratic nomination from the far left of his party. (Actually, Sanders has been in the Senate as an independent socialist, rather than as a Democrat, but no matter.) Sanders was discovered by the rather leftist magazine, Mother Jones, to have written an article some forty years earlier in which – for some bizarre reason – he thought to write about women’s sexual fantasies over rape. On television, while renouncing this strange bit of work, managed to compare it to the recent soft porn best seller, Fifty Shades of Grey. This, perhaps, was not the best way to spend his chances for some quality time on Meet the Press, the country’s premier Sunday news discussion TV show.

Sanders, like so many other (male) older politicians seems caught by the change of heart by many Americans about sex and the way it is discussed in public. While social conservatives have captured the headlines in recent years, nevertheless, survey data from places like the Pew Research Center shows a clear shift in views on such concerns as same sex marriage – moving dramatically towards both support for it and acceptance of it almost across the board, regardless of political affiliation.

Nevertheless, it is possible that the views of many Republican contestants for the presidential nomination may have become obscured by the very paucity of female Republicans in the House of Representatives and Senate. As the New York Times noted just other day, “The rising number of women in Congress can obscure another trend: The number of Republican women has remained roughly stagnant for more than a decade. Although women in both parties have increased their numbers in Congress during the past 25 years, the share of Democratic women — now nearly 33 percent — has continued to climb, while the Republican female share has levelled off since hitting 10 percent during the mid-2000s. And political polarisation seems to be a major reason.

“Moderate Republican women — think of Olympia Snowe, the former Maine senator, or Connie Morella, the former Maryland congresswoman — were once common in the party, according to research by Danielle Thomsen, a political scientist at Duke. But moderate Republicans of both genders are nearly gone from Congress today. Some conservative women, like Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, have been elected, but there are relatively few of them in a traditional pipeline to Congress: state legislatures. In other words, the gap is likely to persist for some time.”

The article went on to note that virtually the same number of Republicans has ever served in the Senate, as there are female Democrats in that body now. “The pattern is part of a larger gender disparity in American politics, of course. In 2012, 55 percent of women voted for President Obama, while 52 percent of men voted for Mitt Romney, according to exit polls. The gap figures to continue, if not widen, in 2016, with Democrats seeming likely to nominate a woman for president and Republicans likely to nominate a man.

“There is plenty of research that the presence of women in legislative bodies makes a difference, particularly on the policies that many female lawmakers prioritise, such as health care and children’s issues. Interviews with women in Congress by the Center for American Women and Politics have found that many see themselves as ‘surrogate representatives’ for women in general. A root cause of the gap is that Democratic women who are potential congressional candidates tend to fit comfortably with the liberal ideology of their party’s primary voters, while many potential female Republican candidates do not adhere to the conservative ideology of their primary voters.”

And so, perhaps, the challenge can be framed as the question: Can Republicans make this transition in attracting more women to their candidate in time for next year’s presidential race? Yes, one of the declared candidates for their nomination is former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, although the likelihood of her actual success is very low, given the fierce competition from more experienced, savvier politicians all around her. It is unlikely any other female Republican office holder would be in a position to pose a challenge for this coming year’s nomination. But is there another way to outflank Democrats and get a lead on a social values issue?

Now, we’re just speculating here, but, ask yourself, which individual has become the most talked about national figure on social media in the past little while – getting more Twitter followers, more quickly, than anyone else, ever? This person had a distinguished career in their chosen field of endeavour and has gone on to become a major figure on national television. And who has now seized the national conversation with his conversion from male to female gender status – gaining endorsements from Democrats and Republicans alike for this?

What if Caitlyn Jenner came out (well, she’s already done that once) and announced she was a strong Republican, a firm supporter of family values (albeit of a slightly non-traditional type), and that she wanted to campaign for a Republican candidate who espoused her values for a strong national defence, stalwart support for personal privacy, and imaginative initiatives to enhance economic growth? Well, The Hill newspaper, Capitol Hill’s veritable bible, has already reported that when television news anchor Diane Sawyer asked Jenner “if she was a Republican, Jenner, 65, replied in the affirmative, saying, ‘Is that a bad thing? I believe in the Constitution.’ ” With Caitlyn Jenner on the campaign trail, what would that do to the national political landscape over the next year and a half? Impossible, you say? DM

Photo: Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R) and his wife Callista Gingrich deliver remarks during the fourth session of the Republican National Convention at the Tampa Bay Times Forum in Tampa, Florida, USA, 30 August 2012. EPA/SHAWN THEW

Read more:

  • Dem lawmaker questions Caitlyn Jenner’s political leanings at The Hill newspaper
  • The Impact of Women in Elective Office at the Political Parity website
  • 5 facts about same-sex marriage at the Pew Research Center
  • G.O.P. Women in Congress: Why So Few? At the New York Times
  • Gov. Walker and the Cool Thing, a column by Gail Collins
  • Duggars’ political connections run deep – But only Mike Huckabee is standing by the reality TV family embroiled in a molestation scandal at Politico

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