Scandal and Stupidity Compete for Press Attention as Rome Burns

By Becky O'Malley
Wednesday June 08, 2011 - 10:08:00 AM

The news about the unfortunately named Congressman Weiner once again prompts widespread speculation on the topic of “What is it about politicians?” Sex is the headline-grabbing topic for the guys: Democrats, Republican, straight, gay, liberal, conservative—you name it, many, many, many of them have gotten themselves ensnared in sex scandals in the last few years. Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Edwards, Elliot Spitzer, Newt Gingrich, that Republican in the airport restroom (What was his name? Was it in Minneapolis?), even the otherwise terrific Barney Frank – it’s a huge list, too numerous to recount here, of career pols who can’t seem to restrain themselves from behavior that is sure to cause problems in the papers.  

Where sex is concerned, women seem to avoid notoriety-provoking escapades most of the time, though occasionally a heterosexual woman politician will attract attention by getting entangled with a male counterpart in an extra-legal liaison. (Many years ago a friend saw two prominent Bay Area politicians, married to others at the time, necking in the balcony of the Grand Lake Theater during a matinee. Couldn’t they afford a motel?) But most often women seem to prefer exhibiting common-and-garden stupidity, breathtaking stupidity, especially women who run in Tea Bagger circles. 

Let us pause here for a moment to reflect on Sarah Palin’s Paul Revere caper. It’s not only that in an unguarded moment she revealed her opinion that Revere’s celebrated ride had something to do with guns, along with other oddities. Her evil twin Michele Bachman made a similar mistake, locating Concord and attendant revolutionary events in New Hampshire instead of Massachusetts. But Palin compounded her original error by defending it the next day, and her supporters made things even worse by trying to revise the Wikipedia version of colonial history to Palin’s specs.  

The Palin-Bachman woman is the perpetual ingénue, believing that she can cover a multitude of errors with wide-eyed apparent innocence. It’s not terribly surprising that stupid women like these two are the ones who gravitate into the Tea Party orbit. That’s where they can find simple, emotionally comforting explanations for why their lives seem hard. In the Tea Party they can escape contact with facts that don’t fit the paradigm of suffering curable by abolishing government. Hope (a brand that’s always a big seller) springs eternal for women like this.  

But back to the boys. It’s not just that they play around—human history recorded way back, at least to the Roman Empire, is full of boys (and also girls) who just like to have fun. But why do so many male politicians—and not just Americans—take ludicrous chances that make it almost a certainty that they’ll be, to coin a word, exposed? (Think Dominique Straus-Kahn, or Berlusconi.)  

How about a bit of pop psychology here? Maybe the exposure itself is the payoff. Maybe when male pols take chances with their bad behavior they’re subconsciously hoping someone will see them. They could be upmarket versions of flashers, kin to the sleazy guys who enjoy spreading their trenchcoats in dark alleys to reveal their unclothed underparts. That would certainly explain the hapless Mr. Weiner, though he used the latest technology to reveal himself to the masses electronically. 

Has anyone ever heard of a female flasher? Women pose unclothed for pay, sure, but seldom do they exhibit themselves for free.  

In a way, the desire to run for office at all seems to be connected for many men to a form of exhibitionism. A political campaign is not the way to ensure privacy—quite the reverse. That’s not to say, of course, that all male candidates and officeholders are flashers at heart, but for a lot of them being on perpetual display seems to be a large part of the reward. Think of the poor souls who run again and again with never a hope of winning: Harold Stassen in the old days was a classic example, though he was never accused of sexual shenanigans.  

It’s conventional when discussing men who have been caught in public peccadilloes to say piously that it’s not the sex, it’s the lying about it that is the sin. Uh-huh. Politicians lie all the time, and it doesn’t make the front page.  

The interesting thing is that sex scandals sell papers, but they also seem to vanish in due course, leaving the offender relatively unscathed. Bill Clinton is back in business, and if it wasn’t for the three-term rule he could probably be re-elected any time. But if he’d been caught looting his campaign fund to buy a yacht, for example, his stock might be permanently depressed. (It could be different in England.) 

Is the answer to have only women candidates, preferably only women of a certain age who are assumed to be past all that? Certainly the Nancy Pelosis and the Jackie Spiers, who are in office at the moment, seem to be able to keep their eyes firmly on the ball, never to be tempted to act out their fantasies on the public stage.  

Should men of the exhibitionist type be considered permanently unfit to hold public office? New Yorker blogger Rick Hertzberg, once a speechwriter for Jimmy Carter (who made headlines just for imagining sex) doesn’t think so: 

“After Weiner’s press conference, there was near-unanimous agreement among the cable talkers that his political career is finished. One of them predicted that Weiner will not be a Member of Congress two weeks from now. I doubt that. I found his conduct at the press conference quite impressive, given the circumstances. He seemed genuinely ashamed, genuinely sorry. But he also showed some steel, some determination, some discipline, some dignity. I think he'll be around for quite a while. The modern media embarrassment machine is bigger than it ever was, but so is the fatal dose. Weiner may yet be Mayor of New York one day. Just not next time.” 

Well, we’ll see what happens. Any birdwatcher knows that periodic exhibitionism by the male of the species seems to run with the territory, so it’s probably too much to think that it will vanish any time soon.. And Margaret Thatcher, a canny old bird whatever you might think of her politics, still knows a birdbrain when she sees one—she’s refused to meet with admiring cuckoo Sarah Palin, now scheduling her maiden flight to England this summer.