In the aftermath of the Gary Hart scandal, The New York Times asked the contenders for president how they think "hypothetical" candidates should respond if asked publicly whether they have committed adultery. Many of them were reluctant even to answer such queries, considering them demeaning to the political process.
Shortly afterward, one contender's wife, Jackie Jackson, gave Life magazine her view: "I don't believe in examining sheets . . . . If my husband has committed adultery, he better not tell me. And you better not go digging into it, because I'm trying to raise a family and won't let you be the one to destroy my family."
With The Times' queries and Jackson's reactions, two new lines at opposite extremes of the court have been drawn in the evolving field of sex and presidential politics. Jackson's statement has drawn praise in some quarters for its feistiness toward the media and for her seeming willingness to subordinate any personal pain for the larger goal of family values.
But many feminists are applauding the fact that the complex issue of marital fidelity has been elevated to the point that it can be one barometer of presidential character. "We are in a period of transition toward a society in which the full humanity of women is recognized," said Suzannah Lessard, arguing in a recent issue of Newsweek that it was "womanizing," not poor judgment, that led to Hart's downfall.
And I find myself beginning to agree with some of the thinking coming from the feminists, although I think it is an issue that has to be handled with great care and judgment. For while the current fascination with presidential fidelity and honor has much about it that is positive, it also has a dangerous side.
For one thing, in the case of American attitudes toward sex, extremes have always been the norm. Sex was viewed as either totally good or totally evil. In the apathy and repression of the 1950s, for example, sex was buried beneath a rock pile of mystery and hypocrisy. And certainly such presidents as Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, who were known to have extramarital liaisons, did not have to suffer any real fear of public exposure.
During the 1960s sexual revolution, a period concurrent with the women's movement's articulation of buried feelings of anger and frustration on the part of some women, many Americans went after sex with a ferocity before unseen, tearing down all semblance of societal standards and mores in the process.
As the society's transformation continued in the 1970s, women's roles went through a marked change. The "typical" breadwinner husband and stay-at-home wife were supplanted by the two-earner family in which both male and female worked outside the home. Half of marriages ended in divorce, and the number of single-parent families increased dramatically. Furthermore, the public consciousness awakened to its antifemale bias and became more sensitized to women as full human beings. Today, as time and AIDS have helped to tame the excesses of the 1960s revolution, new forces are pushing the pendulum back for a return to a time of temperance.
Yet, like so much else in American life, these trends are replete with contradictions. A presidential candidate is brought down because of allegations that he is a womanizer, yet millions of Americans romanticize the adulterous behavior of J.R. of "Dallas." Millions of Americans choose to live together before getting married -- if they get married at all -- yet the sexual conduct of public officials can destroy careers.
In the end, I suspect we will have continuing contradictions and some pretty strict splits along sexual lines over whether "hypothetical" presidential candidates should answer if asked publicly whether they are faithful to a spouse. Nearly every man I asked thought that in most cases the question was "irrelevant." One male friend said, "I'd rather have a JFK who likes women than a Richard Nixon who's faithful." Women, on the other hand, tended to identify more with the pain of the political wife, feeling that a candidate's relationships with women could be an important character indicator, indeed, that a man who deceives his wife may be untrustworthy in other ways.
One thing is certain, the adultery issue is going to loom as a critical barometer in the late 1980s -- one for political pundits, feminist writers and all voters, especially women, as more women rise to elected office. I hope all of us handle it with wisdom and caution, lest we unleash a moral witch hunt that could rival the Puritans in 17th century New England.