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Who should talk freely about it, indeed?

Adultery: Whose
Business Is It?

By Roxanne Roberts
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 20, 1998; Page B01

Your best friend is having an affair with a co-worker. Your neighbor is sleeping with the fifth-grade soccer coach. Your boss is sneaking around with his secretary. And your president -- if you believe the allegations -- was fooling around with a White House intern half his age.

Adultery: It's sexy, salacious and scandalous, but is it any of our business? If you ask most people about what they do in their own bedrooms -- and whom they do it with -- they say it's a personal matter. End of discussion.

Or is it?

Is it personal if an elected official -- someone who asks to be our leader -- cheats on his or her spouse? If politicians lie to their families, can we trust them to tell us the truth? Does someone who speaks of morality, character and family have a right to pull the curtain when the public servant and the private persona are at odds?

The polls say most Americans think President Clinton's private life is his business. We elected him to the highest office in the land not once but twice. His approval rating has never been higher, even if last week's polls report that many people believe he's lying about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.

In the famous "60 Minutes" interview in 1992, Clinton answered allegations about a history of adultery with a non-denial: "I'm not prepared tonight to say that any married couple should ever discuss that with anyone but themselves. . . . The only way to put it behind us, I think, is for all of us to agree that this guy has told us about all we need to know."

Hillary Rodham Clinton offered essentially the same answer last month in a "Today" interview. "I learned a long time ago that the only two people who count in any marriage are the two that are in it." Host Matt Lauer pressed the first lady with a hypothetical question: "If an American president had an adulterous liaison in the White House and lied to cover it up, should the American people ask for his resignation?"

She paused and offered that they should be "concerned" before conceding, "Well, I think if all that were proved true, I think that would be a very serious offense."

Can an unfaithful husband be a faithful president?

History says yes. At least 13 U.S. presidents -- and that's probably a low estimate -- have managed to faithfully execute their duties to the nation while exercising their executive privilege with the ladies. Clinton, if the rumors are true, joins the list of Romeos at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The difference is that we know during, not after, the fact.

Washington pretends to be shocked each and every time. But this town is crawling with charismatic, powerful politicians and adoring admirers. Long hours have a way of adding up to long nights. Old game, new faces.

In the early '80s, a young Washington writer had an affair with a married congressman. "A top Democratic aide told me they had a three-river rule: If there are three rivers between you and your wife, it's okay to cheat," she says.

Marriage therapist Lori Gordon was married for 17 years to a Senate staffer who was unfaithful to her. "What I learned later was that this was condoned behavior on Capitol Hill," she says. "It was fair game for anyone in a position of power. It wasn't that they were unhappy at home. It was just too seductive."

Adultery? Washington didn't invent it. It's just not sure what to do about it.

A Well-Traveled Road

Remember Gary Hart? In his 1988 presidential bid, the long-married Hart dared reporters to catch him in a compromising position, snuggled with Donna Rice on the aptly named boat Monkey Business and was forced to drop out of the race in '87. Anyone that reckless with his private life was deemed a poor choice for the professional demands of the presidency. The "character" question -- the private life of politicians -- was suddenly fair game for public debate.

On "60 Minutes," Clinton defined character as "the continuing struggle for integrity." Good intentions were the emphasis, not the end result of those efforts. "But if there were something really terribly wrong with my character, in terms of my fitness to serve in an executive position," he asked, wouldn't it have been revealed during his long political career? Arkansas voters heard the rumors of philandering for years and repeatedly elected him anyway.

Infidelity can be a major or minor sin, and the public decides when to make it their business. Allegations of adultery crippled the public aspirations of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros, ended the presidential ambitions of Virginia Sen. Chuck Robb and derailed the gubernatorial ambitions of Rep. Joe Kennedy after stories emerged about his late brother, Michael. On the other hand, allegations of infidelity have done little damage to New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. And D.C. Mayor Marion Barry was reelected with relative ease, even after a hotel room tryst led to his being prosecuted on drug charges.

And now, in the center ring, Roy Romer. The Democratic National Committee chairman and Colorado governor held an extraordinary news conference two weeks ago. With his wife of 45 years at his side, Romer admitted to a 16-year "affectionate" relationship with a former aide, B.J. Thornberry, which he said will continue with his wife's blessing. Romer denied the relationship during his statewide campaigns in 1990 and 1994, and still says he was not lying because it was never "sexual." "I was strictly accurate, but not expansive," said Romer. "I didn't have the confidence I could be this forthcoming and still serve in public life."

Is this personal? Or public? Lori Gordon, who founded Pairs International, a marriage counseling program in South Florida, believes that the private lives of public officials have become our business, whether we like it or not.

"Public officials are role models," she says. "In the past, affairs were hushed up. With Clinton, this is public information and it affects standards of behavior, it affects marital commitment, it affects families, it affects the bottom-line level of trust overall. It makes us more cynical. The loss of love, hope and expectations is corrupting our culture."

In many traditional societies, adultery is a public concern precisely because it involves issues of children and property, says cultural anthropologist David Murray. Inheritance is the critical issue to ensure the orderly transfer of property among generations; adultery undermines that order. Modern sanctions are rooted in the same concerns: Infidelity is wrong because it threatens the emotional and economic security of families.

"Even in the absence of children, infidelity is a betrayal, a treason to the family structure," says Murray. A public standard of marital fidelity should apply to politicians, he says, because marriage and public office both involve oaths of faithfulness. A man who will betray his wife may betray other vows.

Murray has three theories for Clinton's soaring approval ratings in the wake of the Lewinsky allegations: One, public indifference to his private life is a sign of cultural decadence; second, we are rallying to the office and not the person; and third, we are in denial and protecting the president's privacy is a way of protecting ourselves.

If the president is guilty of the allegations, says Murray, it is another sign that the social order is falling apart. "This is a loose thread in what may be a cheap suit. If we pull on the thread, we're worried it will unravel all the way down to our ankles."

Public Opinion

Most Americans, no matter what they do in their private lives, believe sex outside marriage is wrong.

The General Social Survey, conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, has been studying public attitudes on adultery for 20 years. In a nationwide sampling of more than 30,000 people during that period, more than 90 percent of Americans say infidelity is "always wrong" or "almost always wrong."

Ask married couples about their own marriages and the numbers are even higher -- 99 percent say they expect their spouses to be faithful, says Judith Treas, a sociologist at the University of California.

(And while we're at it, toss out that stereotype of European Sophisticates and American Puritans. Yes, Americans are more conservative when it comes to infidelity, but a 1994 study of 24 industrialized nations shows that very few countries think adultery is socially acceptable: The average "always wrong" rating is 66 percent. "This is not a Made in the U.S.A. moral issue," says Treas.)

Still, approximately 1 out of 5 men and 1 out of 8 women will be unfaithful at some point in their marriages, according to data collected since 1990 by the General Social Survey. Sociologists believe it is impossible to get totally truthful answers concerning adultery, but these percentages are consistent in a number of studies.

Surveys suggest that men are unfaithful more often than women because they have more opportunities away from home and children. As more and more women enter the workplace, their numbers are inching up.

Why cheat? Why climb Everest? Because we can. "One of my clients boasted of having four affairs going simultaneously -- a tremendous feat of time management if not moral fortitude," says University of South Carolina psychologist Howard Rankin.

Because there are plenty of temptations, hormones and the thrill of the new. "What does she have that I don't?" cries the apocryphal heartbroken wife. "She's not you," replies her husband.

Why? Because we rationalize infidelity. It's not adultery if I love the person. It's not wrong if I don't love the person.

"Women are more offended by emotional involvement with another person," says Treas. "And men tend to discount the importance of physical sex as indicative of fidelity to the marriage."

Which brings us back to the allegations about the president. What should one make of America's reaction to the latest scandal?

Since the Lewinsky allegations surfaced last month, Clinton's approval ratings have soared, stunning and delighting the White House. His job approval is 66 percent, according to this week's CNN/USA Today poll. Here's where it gets weird: Sixty-five percent of the respondents said moral leadership is "very important," and 62 percent said they thought Clinton is lying about the allegations.

A Gray Area

"To be honest, I don't care," says author Michael Baisden, who interviewed 300 men for his book "Never Satisfied: How & Why Men Cheat." "Even though he's the president, infidelity is very personal. That's between him and his wife. I don't want to get involved in the president's bedroom. It's a matter of whether or not he's doing his job."

The argument for privacy is pragmatic: As long as a politician performs honorably in the public sphere, private life should be just that. Too much public scrutiny will prevent qualified people from going into public service.

Joe Turnham, a prospective Democratic candidate for a U.S. House seat in Alabama, said the allegations about Lewinsky "will elevate the scrutiny of public officials. I have to wonder: Do I want the world to know my deepest, darkest secrets?"

It was one thing to discover those dark secrets after the fact: John Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt were respected and mourned long before their affairs became public knowledge. With President Clinton's alleged indiscretions, the public gets daily gossip on the evening news.

"The whole thing is just so sordid," says Richard Taylor, author of "Love Affairs: Marriage & Infidelity." "It seems to me that this is nobody's business except Mrs. Clinton's. I don't think we elect politicians to be role models."

Ray Sahelian, a family physician from California, says voters have a realistic view of their leaders. "Realizing that the president is also only a human being like themselves, many Americans understand his urge to be with other women and condone it as long as Hillary does not object," says Sahelian. "I would call it moral realism, rather than a moral decline. It's being more in touch and honest about the reality of human sexual desire and need."

The first lady's role has been critical: If she had acted wounded or depressed, then the public's reaction would have been more protective toward her and resentful toward her husband. A wife's public humiliation is often seen as worse than the infidelity itself. Contrast Mrs. Clinton with Princess Diana and the backlash against Prince Charles. Both royals admitted to extramarital affairs. When Diana died in August, her adultery was forgiven but his affair was blamed for driving her away and, eventually, killing her.

"I tell people that adultery is such a hot issue; the level of destruction that can be wreaked on a family is rarely worth an outside relationship," says Sanford Ain, a Washington lawyer who specializes in divorce. "Infidelity is an issue in divorce but is rarely the cause of the breakup."

The courts aren't usually interested in who's at fault when adultery is an element in a divorce, Ain says. Although adultery is a crime in Virginia, Maryland and the District, it is not prosecuted and rarely is a significant consideration in the division of property in divorce proceedings.

"The ground is shifting dramatically," says Paul Costello, press spokesman for Rosalynn Carter and Kitty Dukakis. "Remember the furor when Carter admitted to 'lust in his heart?' That was only 20 years ago. The American people seem to have become much more cynical about politicians in general, or more libertarian in their views: What goes on between two consenting adults in the privacy of their bedroom is private."

And Costello adds a footnote: Richard Nixon, who was forced to resign from office, never had a hint of scandal concerning extramarital affairs.

"You walk down a slippery slope when you equate private morality with public leadership," he says.

A Fine Line

Kathy, who lives in Northern Virginia, has been married for 23 years and has three children. Her husband was unfaithful, repeatedly. They separated, they went to counseling, and the marriage took a long time to heal. "The anger wouldn't go away for the longest time," she says. "And when you have anger, you can't make anything work."

She looks at the allegations about Clinton and Lewinsky with the eye of someone who has lived through it. If the stories are true, she thinks the president has emotional problems he's not addressing. But ultimately, she says, this is the Clintons' problem -- not the country's.

"I know nobody in the world is perfect," she says. "Where do you draw the line and say, 'This person is not perfect enough to be president'?"


© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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