He Says / She Says: INFIDELITY & PUBLIC OFFICE
Author: Keith Kelson & Jean Wharton | Photographer: Photography by Anne
Mark Sanford, Elliot Spitzer and Bill Clinton have one thing in common: They jeopardized promising political careers and tarnished their respective legacies because of very impulsive and self-destructive behavior. Clinton, who was in the Oval Office at the time, became the first president to be embroiled in a tawdry scandal with an intern who would have a difficult time getting a date at a small community college. He compounded the issue by lying about the affair and sounding like a nervous used car salesman during his denial.
Elliot Spitzer possibly cost himself a shot at the White House by charging the taxpayers of New York for his visits to an elite escort service during his tenure as governor of New York. When he was attorney general, Spitzer was a tough no-nonsense kind of a guy, and it came as a shock to many when he fell from grace.
Governor Mark Sanford went from being a frugal, well-respected family man to late night punch line faster than a speeding bullet because of his extramarital affair with a reporter in Argentina. He made the entire state of South Carolina stop watching talk shows like Late Night with David Letterman for at least three months.
All the men I named fell from grace because of their involvement in extramarital affairs. Elliot Spitzer and Bill Clinton managed to keep their respective marriages intact, while Mark and Jenny Sanford couldn’t get beyond Mark’s infidelity. Mark also made the mistake of asking Jenny for permission to continue seeing his mistress. The average wife doesn’t even want you looking at other women. Asking her permission to let you continue your extramarital affair will get you bonked on the head with a large skillet.
That brings me to this month’s topic: Does a messy personal life mean that you can’t be a good leader? Well, Mark Sanford hasn’t been a terrible governor, but I was more concerned about his disappearing act than the actual affair. He left the state ungoverned for six days and just flew down to Argentina, seemingly on a whim. You can’t just leave South Carolina on auto-pilot, man. This state is like a Dodge Viper, speeding along a rain slick, winding road; it needs a steady hand on the wheel at all times.
I believe that public figures deserve private lives, but when your personal life starts to dominate the airwaves and begins to interfere with the state’s business, you’ve got to go. No tearful confessions, asking the public to give you another chance. Just call a press conference to let everyone know that you’ll be stepping down. I like the way the British handle political scandals with their mass resignations and complete vanishing from public life.
We all have feet of clay, but it’s hard to follow and respect someone who can’t seem to keep a tidy personal life. People naturally assume that if you’re willing to deceive your spouse, you will happily sell them down the river, too. I say, once you get caught, just bite the bullet and clean out your desk.
Governor Sanford not only got caught and refused to resign, he also broke the law. You get a year in the big house and a fine of $500 for adultery in South Carolina, you know. Given his blatant disregard for the law, Governor Sanford should have resigned instead of staying on in office. I wonder if he paid that fine?
I know that many young people will accuse me of “player hating,” but I’m sticking to my guns. Politicians aren’t rock stars, and they don’t need to be cavorting about like the Rolling Stones on tour. You want to party like a rock star? Well, don’t run for public office. Voters don’t want to see how many women you can seduce; they want you to take care of business.
Bill Clinton also should have resigned, but since he plays a pretty mean saxophone, I’m willing to give him a pass. I also have reports that Hillary was seen chasing Bill around the White House with a large cast iron skillet given to her by former president Jimmy Carter. I think Bill has suffered enough.
Meanwhile, Elliot Spitzer has quietly been rebuilding his public image. He’s the only man of the three to resign instead of staying on in office. He hasn’t said that he seeks to return to politics, but all signs point in that direction. He may eventually be able to regain the public trust, but if he wants to speed up the process, he should learn to play the saxophone.
When I’m driving down 278 with the music on and the windows down, I cruise at about six miles per hour over the posted speed limit. My seat belt is on and my hands are positioned at ten and two. I use my turn signals and have my lights on at the appropriate time of day. Yet, whenever a deputy sheriff pulls up next to me at the stop, a knot drops from my throat into my stomach and I tighten my grip on the wheel. I feel nervous, even when I know I am not doing anything wrong or even slightly lawless. From my youth, I’ve carried with me a healthy dose of fear of and respect for authority. Most people with a somewhat sound moral compass share this due regard.
I do not always agree with the government regardless of who is in the Oval Office or what political party has established dominance in the governing bodies of our country. This is not to say that I’m not a proud American, because I most certainly am. I tear up at the national anthem and the sight of a member of the armed forces in uniform. Recently, during the SC Primary elections, I honked my horn and gave a wave and peace sign to some campaigners on the side of the road. I don’t know what candidate they were representing, but the sight of Americans actively participating in the process makes me proud.
What then is it like to actually be the authority? What is it like to have the power of the federal, state or municipal government behind you? If you’re creating and overseeing the laws, who then is your authority?
Why then is it so difficult for the men (and let’s be honest; the U.S. government is dominated by men, and it’s those men who get caught cheating) in power to keep true to their vows and remain faithful to their wives and families? What we’re talking about are some of the most fundamental elements of what most Americans consider sacred: truth and faithfulness. I cherish these two character traits.
GENERALLY, THESE MEN IN POSITION OF POWER FALL INTO 2 CATEGORIES:
MAN ONE: He is a wealthy heir of privilege who, no matter how often he eats fried chicken with the commoners or reads a picture book at a public school, will never be like the rest of us.
MAN TWO: He is the all-American dream story. He is risen up from the nothingness of his youth to political prominence.
The first man (we’ll call him Jack) has never been denied anything or anyone in his life. Because of this, he is used to having whatever and whomever he wants. I would predict that Jack’s father and grandfather before him all stepped outside of their vows. It’s a matter of breeding and opportunity.
The second man (we’ll call him Bill) has become the public figure through hardship and triumph. He has been handed certain accolades and privileges that are foreign to him, and like a suddenly popular nerd, he has no foundation for what is appropriate.
Now both, Jack and Bill are wrong, wrong, and wrong when they cheat on their wives. I’ll never state the contrary. When you’ve committed before God, friends and family to maintain certain expectations in your role as husband (the simplest of which is don’t mess around with other people) and you can’t do it, no matter what position you hold, be it postman or president, you should not have gotten married. If they can’t be faithful to one person, how are we as voters and citizens expected to trust them with any part of our government?
I have zero firsthand experience as wife, let alone a political wife. I’ve only witnessed how challenging marriage is without the constraints of living in the public eye and the pressure of working for the government. I understand that the inner workings of any marriage are complicated and precarious. That being said, I am sure there are plenty of political marriages that have established parameters regarding the flexibility of certain aspects of their partnerships, including fidelity. Then word gets out in the news, he gets caught, and to save his political face, she has to stand at the podium as he tearfully confesses.
To play devil’s advocate, I can’t say that my vote has ever been directly influenced by extra marital promiscuity. I surely take it into account with the weight of other issues I consider important. To the best of recollection, I haven’t changed my vote for or against a candidate strictly because he (Bill, Jack, Newt, Elliot, or countless others) cheated.
What really makes me upset is those politicians who campaign on family values or vote to maintain the definition and sanctity of marriage and get caught in Argentina by way of a backpacking trail through the Appalachian Mountains. Regardless of what level of office you hold or what amount of sovereignty and power you supposedly command, hypocrisy negates it all—even with the most diehard authority fearer.