Our Ready Embrace of Those Cheating Pols

Kennedy, Monroe
During a party at the home of movie executive Arthur Krim, American actress Marilyn Monroe stands between Robert Kennedy (left) and John F. Kennedy, New York, New York, May 19, 1962. The party followed a democratic fundraiser at Madison Square Garden honoring John F. Kennedy's birthday where Monroe famously sang "Happy Birthday." (Cecil Stoughton - Time & Life Pictures/getty Image)
By Pamela Druckerman
Sunday, July 15, 2007

Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton were a picture-perfect couple as they campaigned in Iowa recently. In between political remarks, they held hands, hugged and exchanged intimate whispers. And yet even some supporters were surely wondering: How on Earth can they still be married? And could his philandering ways keep her from reaching the White House?

Hillary Clinton's legendary endurance of her husband's extramarital trysts haunts her presidential candidacy. But then, there's no shortage of adultery hovering over the current race: Rudy Giuliani's awkward transition into his third marriage, John McCain's overlapping relationships with his first and second wives and potential candidate Newt Gingrich's acknowledged "periods of weakness." Mitt Romney seems to be one of the few major candidates without marital baggage -- save for a great-grandfather who was a polygamist.

The poll numbers would seem to be ominous for adulterers. In a Newsweek survey taken earlier this year, 43 percent of Americans and more than half of Republican evangelicals said they wouldn't vote for a candidate who had an extramarital affair. In a 2006 Gallup poll on moral issues, Americans said that adultery was worse than human cloning.

So why is Giuliani a front-runner for the Republican nomination, with strong support from evangelicals? Why is Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa muddling through an adultery crisis with his aspirations for higher office apparently intact?

The answer isn't in the polls, where people say what they think they should say. It's in American bedrooms. The changing way we treat politicians' infidelity reflects the changing way we handle such affairs in our own lives.

Back in the days when John F. Kennedy took women for a dip in the presidential pool without a peep from the press, Americans didn't automatically assume that cheaters had personality defects. To the contrary, their behavior could be seen as glamorous or as evidence of a passionate streak. In 1973, slightly less than 70 percent of Americans said that adultery was "always wrong," compared with 82 percent in 2004. Though Americans generally agreed that infidelity was bad, it was an offense they could live with. "We didn't have guilt then," a retiree in her 70s now living in Florida told me, reflecting on the affairs she and her married girlfriends had in the 1960s.

When gender roles were more distinct -- most husbands went to work while their wives tended house -- Americans were more comfortable with the idea that married couples might keep secrets from each other. In "President Kennedy: Profile of Power," Richard Reeves wrote that a few members of Kennedy's inner circle had moral qualms about helping to arrange the president's romps, but most considered philandering a harmless hobby ("It took less time than tennis, and partners were often easier to find."). Younger aides were in awe of the president's sexual prowess. Few people questioned why Jacqueline Kennedy soldiered on.

Back then, a man could safely boast about his extramarital exploits. Lyndon B. Johnson so detested being in Kennedy's sexual shadow that he reportedly said, "I've had more women by accident than he's had on purpose."

The fidelity rules, for presidents and for ordinary people, began changing in the 1970s. Most states adopted no-fault divorce, transforming marriage from a durable container for all kinds of transgressions into a disposable one. Indiscretions that once were tolerated suddenly became grounds for dismissal. And Americans increasingly had the means to walk away, because more women worked. As tolerance for infidelity fell, the national divorce rate doubled between 1967 and 1979. A generation of brides and grooms read one another the one-strike rule: Cheat, and it's over.

These new demands on marriage fanned the fledgling industry of couples therapy. Psychologists had once assumed that only one fragile psyche could be dealt with at a time, but in the 1970s, they decided that "the relationship" was itself an entity that could be studied and prodded. The ranks of couples therapists quickly multiplied, creating an army of people preaching that an affair isn't just about sex; it's a symptom of other problems.

Thus by 1987, when presidential candidate Gary Hart was found to have spent the night with a blonde who wasn't his wife, the senator lasted only one more week in the race. A cheating politician, like a cheating husband, was thought to be capable of any manner of other sin.

It was no accident that the movie "Fatal Attraction" -- in which a married man's affair spirals into murder -- came out a few months after Hart withdrew. Hollywood embraced the new thinking about affairs and added its own dramatic twist: There's no such thing as a harmless affair, because adultery unleashes a torrent of chaos that threatens the family and leads to death. AIDS was picking up velocity around the same time, sharpening the message that "promiscuity kills."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company