Journalists are the only people who don’t love summer. News just doesn’t seem to happen as frequently or intensely during those balmy three months in the middle of the year. So I would imagine the press was not disappointed when Russia invaded Georgia. But this summer, it seems the media has an even better friend than Vladimir Putin: ex-presidential candidate John Edwards, who kindly allowed himself to be photographed cradling the “love child” he may have produced with a former campaign staffer.
Momentum for what would become one of the biggest stories of the summer was slow to gather. It began to blossom on supermarket broadsheets like the National Enquirer, but quickly grew after Edwards appeared on multiple talk shows. His denials of paternity simply fanned the flames of scandal; even the august New York Times found itself caught up in Edwards mania.
Like the blockbuster movies they share air time with, summer news items tend to be either shallow action flicks or sophomoric sex comedies. Surely we can do better than this. I suppose the real question is why is America so obsessed with the private sex lives of its publicly elected officials. In a country of abstinence-only education and meticulously censored prime-time television, we nevertheless fixate on the nitty-gritty details of our politicians’ sexual habits. (Kenneth Starr, anyone?) What makes the American attitude toward sex in public even stranger is that it is unique in the Western world. European politicians can run wild without voters ever batting an eyelash — take Francois Mitterand, the former French president, whose infidelities were so well known that his mistress and illegitimate daughter occupied places of honor at his state funeral. Vive la France!
Sex scandals in American politics are nothing new. Alexander Hamilton, one of the founding fathers, was permanently disgraced when his affair with Maria Reynolds, the wife of a notorious con-man, went public. But for most of the nation’s history, the private conduct of public men led to nothing more than scandalous rumors. As recently as the 1960s, presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson carried on affairs without suffering consequence. The Nixon years, however, brought drastic change. After the Watergate scandal, it suddenly became a journalist’s duty to expose not only political corruption, but also corruption of the flesh. Take Gary Hart’s 1988 campaign, where Hart’s presidential aspirations were sunk by a few photos confirming his affair with a 29-year-old model.
Americans on the whole are often criticized for being generally stupid and shallow — especially so when it comes to politics. As our detractors say, we spend more time focusing on our politicians’ private lives than on their policies. Having grown up during the Clinton years, these criticisms don’t seem entirely unwarranted. Even when politicians aren’t committing adultery, we still obsess over the inner working of their conjugal beds. Remember Fred Thompson? No? Well, he briefly ran for president. And starred on “Law & Order” for many years. The media focused less on his lack of a policy stance and more on his “trophy” wife, Jeri. And though first ladies cannot be too attractive, they have to be aesthetically pleasing in just the right way. I can’t count the number of “would you rather” possibilities featuring Cindy McCain versus Michelle Obama.
Maybe our fascination with sex comes from the long shadow of our Puritan heritage — our society is always game for a sexy witch hunt. Or maybe it stems from the desire of a lazy populous for lurid tales of adultery and sodomy as opposed to real news. I don’t mean to say that the press has no place investigating the private lives of politicians. However, the media must draw the line between journalism and voyeurism. In any case, the trend does not seem to be going away any time soon. Googling “Edwards policies” yields eight million hits. “Edwards sex” gets 10 million.
Ben Loffredo is a freshman in Pierson College.