Ain't Misbehavin'

Ginger White's apparently painful confession of having had a 13-year on-again, off-again affair with Herman Cain seems to have dealt the final blow to his tottering political campaign. I've heard conversations, since, in which political insiders are annoyed about that—believing that adultery should never be what brings a public person down.

Here's the idea: Adultery is a private, consensual behavior. While it may violate a person's marriage, that's none of our business as citizens. Sexual harassment, on the other hand, is a public matter precisely because a) it is not consensual, and b) it is employment discrimination against women (or sometimes men), that makes it difficult for a person to earn a living. Violating another person's body and discriminating against them in the workplace is, in this view, completely relevant to governing, because it is an abuse of power that indicates someone may well abuse other power, and doesn't deserve to wield it. (Cf: Senator Bob Packwood: after being confirmed as a serial sexual harasser, was also charged with financial improprieties.)

I have made these arguments in the past, and stand by them now. I see no reason for a news organization to investigate charges about someone's private sexual behavior, or for a citizenry to care, so long as no one has been harmed. But I'm no longer entirely certain that there's a bright line, as the lawyers say, between the two—so long as the harassment allegations come first.

Herman Cain is not the first to be discovered dabbling in both behaviors. Consider the former governor of California, Mr. Schwarzenegger, a.k.a. "The Gropinator." There was coverage of his abusive treatment of women for a long time before we all learned that his longtime mistress and former household staff member was raising his extramaritally conceived child. There's something about a longterm secret affair that confirms the picture of someone who does not think ordinary rules of personal behavior apply to him. It's as if these men were playing video games, trying to knock down every nice-looking woman who comes their way. It's as if they're thinking: Some women say yes, some complain, and you can't know which is which until you try. Knowing that a man can't keep it zipped outside his marital bed just makes it more plausible, I think, that he's been out of line in other ways.

I'm not saying that this is how Americans should, ideally, assess their political candidates. In the ideal world, everyone would have time to sit down and carefully assess a candidate's ability to handle problems in Waziristan, fallout from the European debt crisis, or policy thoughts on Social Security. The news media would focus only on what's essential in a candidate's thinking. Sexual harassment charges would be assessed on their own merits. But given that that's not our world, I am inclined to accept Ginger White's testimony into the evidentiary record about Mr. Cain.



I wouldn't argue that the press should be seeking out evidence of affairs, but I think it's reasonable to report on affairs that come to light. Having an affair, of itself, rarely seems to have an impact on a political career - Newt Gingrich is still a serious candidate.

Some people argue that the way a person treats his spouse - fidelity to his marriage vows, honesty, etc. - is irrelevant to how he'll behave in other contexts. I disagree and although, like most Americans, I don't see an affair as disqualifying it's reasonable for voters to know the basic character of candidates for important political offices. If you believe that such behaviors can be compartmentalized, and that how a person behaves toward his wife and family is irrelevant to how he will behave in other contexts, I can see how your position would differ.

I don't think that an extramarital affair should be only criteria upon which one judges a candidate's potential to hold office. What happens to and in a marriage can be heaven and/or hell. I won't judge how a man or woman deals with that. However, when that person presents her/him self for public scrutiny by running for office as POTUS, and as as a candidate in a party of self described virtuous paragons, judgement is inevitable. On the other hand, both Franklin Roosevelt and Jack kennedy were adulterers whose performance as POTUS has been treated kindly by history.

Your musings on the relationship between harasser and adulterer led me to this thought: we rarely hear of a case of male upon female harassment or adultery where the object (a word I use purposely in this case) of the man's behavior is an economic/social/organizational peer. I'm not saying it doesn't happen ... it just doesn't seem to happen that often. Generally, the woman is a subordinate or a job seeker or someone somehow "in need" of financial support or succumbs/gets involved to keep or get or advance in a job, etc. Or it may be the woman's only way to exploit/manipulate/damage her pursuer.

In this (obviously oversimplified scenario) the implications of a sexual political and power dynamic are obvious, highlighting the correlation between harassment and adultery. And while the latter may be consensual, participants don't always agree on what they're actually consenting to (e.g. friend with benefits; kept woman; relationship leading to something greater?).

In the present political climate - particularly with the fixation on so-called "social" issues and the need to demonize all others by many on the right - the political process seems to come down to a pageant where one's performance on stage in interviews, debates and photo ops, and one's ability to deliver pithy "sound bites" (i.e. one liners) is how the electorate assess candidates. Whether the candidate's philandering and/or harassment behaviors will translate into performance or policy seems, sadly, of decreasing importance.

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