You may not be interested in the alleged affairs of the presidential candidates, but the affairs of the candidates are very interested in you. Our media flask is now overflowing with smutty stories primed by the forthcoming issue of the National Enquirer, which alleges on its cover that Ted Cruz has had “5 Secret Mistresses.” Only by depositing yourself in a news quarantine this weekend will you escape the story’s heavy breathing.
Cruz denounces the piece, which I’ve not yet obtained, as “utter lies,” and claims it was planted by Donald Trump. (Trump denies it.) But either way, it restarts the journalistic debate over whether the press has any business reporting on the sex lives of politicians. At one time in Washington, politicians—even the president—could have lovers on the side and get away with it as long as they were circumspect about it (Lyndon Johnson, John Kennedy, Dwight Eisenhower, Franklin Roosevelt, and so on back to the founding). But that arrangement changed in 1979, when the Washington Monthly published Suzannah Lessard’s killed New Republic piece about Ted Kennedy’s dalliances. Since then, a dozen major politicians, including Rep. Robert Bauman in 1980; Rep. Dan Crane in 1983; Sen. Gary Hart in 1987; President Bill Clinton in 1998; and Sen. John Edwards in 2008 have been accused in the press for having participated in bedroom rodeo with someone other than their spouse.
More of a meta piece than an exposé, the Lessard article presented for public consumption what was widely known within official Washington but was only whispered about elsewhere: Ted Kennedy, who was running for president against Jimmy Carter, was sleeping around. A lot. Titled “Kennedy’s Woman Problem; Women’s Kennedy Problem,” the piece named no names and made no attempt to document his sexual adventures. It merely presented them as a given to argue that Kennedy’s philandering and treatment of women deserved public discussion “as a legitimate issue in the campaign.”
Lessard raised many of the issues we still bat around every time a politician is accused of—or gets caught—having sex outside of marriage. (It should be noted that Kennedy separated from his first wife in 1978, and they divorced in 1982.) In her view, a candidate who campaigns or governs as a family man—especially one who also makes a big deal about being religious—is guilty of credibility-destroying hypocrisy if he or she also has extramarital affairs. Another criticism of office-holding philanderers, especially presidents or officials holding high security clearances, is that they injure the nation by making themselves vulnerable to blackmail by foreign powers or other unscrupulous operators.
Blackmail aside, why do a politician’s dalliances matter? Why do we care? Why do we hunger to read about them even if we don’t care about hypocrisy or the national security implications? It would take an anthropologist to explain that, but who is shtupping whom is of high interest in almost every culture, and has been so ever since we left the trees for the veldt. Even the sex lives of the low-status fascinate us. Whether valid or not, an individual’s sex life has come to stand as a marker of trustworthiness. Once the subject is breached, it takes superhuman powers by the press to avoid talking about it.
Candidates seek extramarital sex for the same reasons civilians do—for adventure, to express status within the group, for love, to obey the command of the selfish gene to throw itself into the next generation. The difference, of course, is that politicians play to a crowd that’s a million times the size of an ordinary civilian, and for that reason the collective judgment is much greater. So is the collective obsession. That’s why we’re all happily gossiping about Ted Cruz’s sex life today: It’s not that he’s sexy (perish the thought), it’s that he’s high profile and high status.
If, as Andrew Marr writes, “Journalism is the industrialization of gossip,” it’s remarkable how little sex-tattling gets published. It was not always so. Sexual gossip can be found in America’s first newspaper, Publick Occurrences Both Forreign And Domestick (1690), which makes mention of the French king’s affair with a prince’s wife. (The publication was shut down after one issue.)
How much damage will the National Enquirer allegations do to the Cruz campaign? According to Gawker, which has read the story, none of the alleged paramours are named, and their photos reproduced in the piece are pixilated, presumably to deter speedy identification. How can we convict on such sketchy evidence, even if that sketchy evidence appears to be more substantial than Lessard’s case against Kennedy? On the other hand, the publication has a pretty good track record catching cheating notables (Hart, Edwards, Tiger Woods, Jesse Jackson). Maybe it has temporarily vagued-out the specifics of Cruz’s alleged affairs because it plans to drip-drip-drip the details into the public over the course of several issues to sell more copies.
If true, the story will be damaging. But even if false, which is entirely possible, the charges will be almost as damaging to Cruz, because he can’t afford to spend scarce time and political capital on the controversy to refute and erase the stain. He’s too busy fighting Trump for the nomination!
Here’s what haunts me most about this story. Today, the cable channels and the Web are filled with high-speed speculation about a story that many of us (including me) have not yet read. What if Cruz is innocent? To borrow a phrase uttered by an exonerated Reagan administration official, where will Cruz go to get his good name back?
It’s hard to imagine Trump losing a step in his campaign if such charges were tossed at him because sexual boasting is so integral to his personality. Also, Trump has laundered his promiscuous past with a third marriage and a fifth child and, unlike Cruz, he has never presented himself as anybody’s moral compass. In 2014, I reviewed Matt Bai’s book about the Gary Hart affair. Send news of all affairs to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. The sexual status of my email alerts are off the charts. My Twitter‘s feed favorite song is “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” My broken RSS feed is a sexual invalid.
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