Sex and politics both have a long and frequently sordid history, both separately and together. It’s time for some perspective, and for a divorce between these two spheres of interest as spheres of interest.
First, let’s acknowledge that human beings are fallible, that those who we hold up as paragons of virtue more often than not have foibles of their own, and that the fact of human fallibility should cease to be a cause celebre each time we find ourselves astonished by its unsurprising recurrence.
Second, let’s acknowledge that politics is about power, whether for benevolent purposes or personal aggrandizement, and that, to varying degrees and in various senses, sex is about power as well, whether the power to seduce and benefit in some way from that seduction or the power to create bonds of love, either simply for the mutual benefits of the most comprehensive of all human partnerships, or to bring new human beings into existence, and nurture and guide these beautiful creatures in ways which fill one with pride and joy. In most instances, human existence being messy and complex, some mixture of the benevolent and base is implicated in each new chapter of both an individual’s sexuality and, when they have a political career, in the progress of that career as well.
Even the purest of new love is cultivated in a fire of mutual seduction (as in nature, where peacock feathers and oversized antlers and various struttings are the norm), and even the noblest of political causes requires seducing people with a compelling idea. Is it any wonder, then, that the two are often conflated, even if in ways which elicit a collective moan from the mesmerized onlookers?
My point here, however, is not to discuss the natural if uncomfortable articulation of sex and politics, but rather to discuss why we just shouldn’t care. Politics is not and should not be the art of finding and promoting paragons of moral virtue, both because being a paragon of moral virtue is a poor qualification for the job of acting as an agent of our collective will in a responsible and effective way, and because more often than not our judgments about others’ moral virtues are easily and frequently deceived. More perceived paragons of moral virtue are power-crazy megalomaniacs than are people less deluded and/or deluding about who and what they really are.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was generally recognized to be the third great American president (until recent ideological lunacy began more stridently to rewrite history and recover the political cultural errors that he had so successfully diminished), and yet he had an affair (and was wheelchair-bound t’boot). John Kennedy had his political strengths and weaknesses, but was a complete philanderer. The list goes on, and even a passing bit of careful consideration leads to the conclusion that there is no visible correlation between sexual virtue and fidelity on the one hand, and political virtue and effectiveness on the other.
Today, we have Weiner’s weiner and John Edwards’ general yuckiness making the rounds. Sure, let’s have our fun at their expense (or not), but let’s not confuse that with political discourse, or anything relevant to political discourse. I disliked Edwards, politically, before I ever had any reason to think he might have had an affair, and though his affair is completely compatible with the reasons I disliked him, it is incidental to both their existence and anyone’s realization of their existence. If you couldn’t see that he was a narcissist before finding out that he was a narcissist, you just weren’t paying attention.
Not that a little narcissism is necessarily a bad thing in a politician. If Edwards had won the presidency prior to being revealed to all and sundry to be a true sleezebag, he would still have been better suited to the job than the most virtuous of right-wing zealots, because he would have at least been performing his job with an understanding that it involves some consideration of the public interest and particularly of the needs of the most disadvantaged. It wouldn’t matter that much to me whether he was doing so in order to get others to adore him as much as he adored himself, or in service to a sincere and deeply held altruism, just as long as he was doing the job we all should want our elected officials to be doing.
Because, when push comes to shove, politics is not about the people we are electing to office; it is about the ways in which we order our own collective existence. Certainly, all things being equal, we want the most responsible, caring, and intelligent people to hold those very critical positions in this shared endeavor. But all things are not equal, including our ability to make those moral judgments with any accuracy, and the degree of their relative relevance vis-a-vis other important considerations, such as what public policies they stand for.
Weiner is still right that universal single-payer health care is the most economically and medically efficient, and most socially just, national system of health care known to man. Kennedy was still inspired and inspirational in his call to dedicate ourselves to the welfare of the nation, and to treat our future together as a shared endeavor calling upon our individual and collective genius and commitment to it. Roosevelt still ushered the nation through a devastating Depression and a horrendous World War in a way which kept our pride and our dignity intact. In comparison, their dalliances and their peccadilloes are of little concern to me.
So next time a politician crashes and burns in a sex scandal, please join me in saying, “wow, man, that’s embarassing. Now get back to work.”