Uncovering the Sex Lives of Politicians
By Ken Ringle
It may be, as Henry Kissinger once remarked, that "power is the ultimate aphrodisiac," traceable via Darwin to female lions and apes who tend to mate with the most powerful male.
It may be that the business of politics is to manipulate and conquer and that the conquest of a young aide feeds the same hunger as does the conquest of a crowd.
It may be that the pacing of a political campaign is a kind of sexual metaphor itself -- a sweaty ballet of accelerating activity and excitement that reaches a climax on election night.
Whatever the reason, some campaign workers, particularly young ones, fall in love -- or lust -- with their candidates much as some people fall in love with their psychiatrists, idealizing them into the solution of all worldly ills. And plenty of candidates stoke their egos with available and potentially disposable aides. It's not inevitable, but it's frequent enough to be visible to some degree in almost any political campaign.
And even where such infatuation is wholly absent, the frantic intensity of political life can breed a kind of carpe diem sexual recklessness comparable to the frenzied breeding during the London Blitz.
"What most people don't understand," a former Nixon staffer said the other night while pondering Clinton's current problems, "is that when you work in the White House you live in a constant adrenaline rush. The whole pace and scope of life is surreal: round-the-clock hours, jetting off to China, constant secrecy. You come to believe that the normal rules don't apply."
While she can't remember anyone having erotic fantasies about Nixon (much hilarity at that thought), she said there was "plenty of hanky-panky" going on among officials and staffers close to the Oval Office.
In "The Power Lovers," her 1974 study of sex and politics, author Myra MacPherson notes that the "compulsive infidelity" habitually seen among politicians is regarded by psychiatrists as "a phallic game . . . of seeking adoration and approval; he wants a relatively immature form of sex, one-night stands and new admirers but no commitment."
But so, McPherson notes, do many of the women who surround him.
"What you get when you mix propensities for risk taking, hyperthymia, and narcissism in the right proportions," writes psychiatrist Peter D. Kramer, author of "Listening to Prozac," "is a damn good politician -- creative, energetic, able to use others well. At the same time you get a man for whom the sex act is a compulsion and a constant gamble: . . . If his naughtiness escapes punishment, the fates still adore him."
I came of age in Louisiana where Gov. Earl Long was openly consorting with stripper Blaze Starr. I later reported on another Louisiana governor, Edwin Edwards, whose gray hair and flamboyant womanizing won him the nickname of "The Silver Zipper." In more than 30 years of journalism I have chased down allegations of State Trooperizing against Cornelia Wallace in Alabama (it isn't always the male or the office holder) and attempted seduction against former senator Brock Adams in Washington state. Such stories were just part and parcel of covering politics.
Most veteran political reporters have sleuthed at some point after illicit relationships involving governors and attorneys general and legislators and congressmen, whether or not such escapades could be confirmed and written about. And most of us have walked away from more of those stories than we've written, sometimes because we couldn't document them sufficiently and sometimes because, however titillating or sordid we found the Democrat or Republican involved, we decided it was none of our business. Not every sex act of a politician involves the public's need to know.
Journalists make these sorts of judgment calls all the time. Where and how do we draw the line?
One of the first political scandals I ever chased involved a Virginia state senator from Charlottesville named Richard Middleton. A conservative Republican, Middleton had won election in the mid-1960s by castigating the "moral decay of the country" and calling for a return of family values. Then he left his wife of 30 years and four children and ran off with the 17-year-old secretary in his tire dealership.
Given the pious posturing that had carried him into office, Middleton's flight would have justified a story even in the days when bedroom antics were generally considered off limits by most news organizations. But there was an even more compelling angle.
The rumor was that he was in Reno for a divorce, after which he planned to marry the young woman and return in time to take his seat in the Virginia General Assembly. But if he declared himself a Nevada resident to get a divorce in Reno, hadn't he vacated his state Senate seat? And shouldn't the governor call a special election to fill it?
The problem was that Middleton and his young love -- the daughter of a Charlottesville cop -- had disappeared. No one could locate them in Reno, if in fact they were there, and no one was talking for the record, not even his wife. There was no concrete evidence for weeks that anything unusual was happening, and thus no way to write the story, though in Virginia political circles people spoke of nothing else. Finally the wife filed a petition for divorce laying all the facts on the public record and we got the story into print.
Some years later, I discovered that the governor of Virginia had a mistress. It became a fairly open secret around the state Capitol. But the governor was no moralizing hypocrite; in fact, he appeared fairly tormented about the relationship. From everything I could discover, his wife accepted or at least tolerated the situation, which was both adult and consensual. His political opponents gossiped about it quietly but no one made an issue of it and there was no indication it affected his public duties. We probably could have staked out the Governor's Mansion and documented some sort of story, but after conferring with Post editors, those of us covering Richmond at the time decided it was a matter best left to the people involved.
The cases of Middleton and the governor were fairly easy to decide. Far more difficult is deciding how much to investigate rumors of an officeholder's discreet but chronic sexual adventuring. Does it involve questions of character that reflect on performance in public office? Does it involve criminal conduct? If it's clearly predatory or the exploitation of a professional underling or becomes very public through legal proceedings, as the Lewinsky allegations have, that's obviously a story. Though, as in the case of the young model on whom Mayor Barry paid a celebrated and quite-unwanted call in his blue velour jogging suit, not necessarily news for long.
The key ingredient that appears to keep most political sexcapades out of the news is mutuality and discretion. When the Lewinsky allegations broke, I called a woman who I learned had been the sporadic sexual partner of a much older, very public and very married elected official. She had worked for him, but the process had very much been one of mutual seduction.
"What makes me think of this White House stuff is the risk involved," she said. "I hated sneaking around but [he] really got off on the risk. He told me about other trysts and he loved the fact that he was pulling the wool over everyone's eyes. 'Nobody knows where I get my nookie!' he'd say. There was a kind of arrogance about it that was pretty scary."
She ultimately ended the affair but has thought about it often and tried to figure out her motivation. "I was taking a hell of a chance because the thing could obviously have blown up in the papers. And I suppose lots of feminists would say he was doing a power trip on me because I worked for him. But I was doing a power trip on him, too, let me tell you. I loved the fact that I could make this idol of the people do whatever I wanted. It was exciting."
Trust is the lifeblood of politics and good politicians know whom they can trust and for what purposes. Or at least they used to. How else to explain the free ride given the famous appetites of John F. Kennedy? Or of Lyndon Johnson, who, in one famous escapade, climbed unbidden after midnight into the bed of a staffer visiting his ranch, telling his startled, just-awakened guest: "Move over, honey -- this is yore president."
But the rules changed in 1974 when an intoxicated Rep. Wilbur Mills was stopped by the Park Police one night for speeding, and Fanne Foxe, a red-haired stripper who worked a bar called the Silver Slipper as "The Argentine Firecracker," fled from the Arkansas Democrat's Lincoln and leaped into the Tidal Basin.
Such a public display led to a journalistic feeding frenzy that discovered Mills, the long-married chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and then one of Washington's most powerful figures, had been consorting with Foxe for some time. What other lawmakers had been doing similar things?
Inquiring reporters wanted to know and revelation after revelation followed, from Rep. Wayne Hays and Elizabeth Ray, the Capitol Hill secretary who couldn't type, to Rita Jenrette and her congressman husband John making whoopee on the Capitol steps to presidential candidate Gary Hart almost begging reporters to follow him aboard the good ship Monkey Business.
There was no longer much currency in discretion. The laissez-faire '60s and '70s led to the blab-it-all-out '80s and '90s. Millions of dollars were paid for kiss-and-tell books and instant fame conferred on dysfunctional people vomiting their sins on daytime television. An entire generation has now grown up innocent of any notion that, even in a scandal, some details of the bedroom are best left unpublicized.
If politics and sex are indeed inseparable, then priapic politicians are going to find themselves more and more stripped naked in the spotlight of a tell-it-all world. And while many would applaud that as a philanderer's just deserts, the current polls suggest that the prospect of digesting a daily diet of Lewinsky scandals may prove as disturbing to Americans as anything the president may have done in the White House.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company