Tuesday, June 7, 2011

For Better or For Worse

The past week has been yet another bonanza for those of us on the sex scandal beat. First came news that an evocative photo of a well-endowed man’s underwear-clad package had been uploaded to the Twitter account of Representative Anthony Weiner, apparently in a botched attempt to private message a 21-year-old college student from another state. Rep. Weiner vehemently denied posting the photo, claiming he’d been hacked. When pressed on whether the photo was from his personal library, the indignant Gentleman from New York ventured only that he could not say "with certitude" that this was a photo of his body. (And exactly which part of your body might this be, Mr. Weiner, if the photo were in fact of you? It's been said a man’s nose can grow several inches with a single fib).

Unsurprisingly, Rep. Weiner’s response failed to satisfy (kind of like Twitter sex)—falling evidently short of the gold standard of equivocation established by Bill “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is” Clinton. By the middle of last week, the nation was coasting through the news cycle on a wave of bad penis jokes. What could be better?

By Friday, we had our answer. The media calculus was simple: if you liked the first big Weiner story, here’s an even bigger wiener for you. His name? John Edwards. Late last week, the once-darling presidential hopeful was charged in a six-count indictment for violation of campaign finance laws on grounds he spent hundreds of thousands of donated dollars to keep his extramarital affair with Rielle Hunter and the subsequent birth of their child out of the public eye.

As if all this weren’t enough, along comes Rep. Weiner’s surreal press conference on Monday. In his statement, Rep. Weiner tearfully apologized not only for his online sexual adventures, but also for having been dishonest. In fact, Rep. Weiner directed his harshest self-criticism not at the “inappropriate” behavior, but rather at himself for clinging so long to a false story about it—a decision he characterized as “a hugely regrettable mistake.”

In recent years, we’ve grown accustomed to the news that a politician has been caught behaving badly. We’re accustomed, as well, to the fact that the things a politician will do to cover up his sexual exploits are often more shame worthy than the deed itself. Take Edwards. Already despised for cheating on his cancer-stricken wife, he went on to prove himself not just a prolific liar but a profligate one, burning extraordinary sums of cash to keep his “family man” reputation burnished. And then there is Rep. Weiner, whose staged indignation last week at the mere suggestion of impropriety has made him look like an even bigger, well, you know, than that underwear did.

If nothing else, these cases remind us of the extreme—and often absurd—lengths to which politicians will go to maintain that “family man” veneer. And that’s got me thinking about why we expect politicians to pretend to be model citizens, sexually speaking, in the first place. In light of recent events, I wonder if these guys aren’t doing themselves a bigger disservice trying to conform to a Mr. Squeaky-Clean image than they would by distancing themselves from that standard in the first place.

Because of all the mistakes John Edwards has made (does anyone even remember his Iraq vote?), surely one of the biggest was to stake his political fortunes on his devoted husband act in the first place. That’s not to say I endorse the strained legal theory behind the criminal indictment, which I don’t. But even if Edwards does get vindicated in court, there still is an important lesson to learn here about pimping family values to win elections. Especially if you are the kind of guy who is into extramarital affairs, prostitution, or sexting (let alone gay-bashing by day and soliciting sex from other men by night, as so many family values conservatives have been caught doing in recent years)—then I’d say it’s probably not the best idea to mount your campaign on the house of cards otherwise known as your personal life. Why not focus on your public record instead?

For the rest of us, maybe it’s time to take a closer look at our own unthinking investment in the “family man” ideal—an ideal that comes bundled (free!) with a whole suite of moralistic values that promote conformity to a model of family life increasingly far removed from the lived experience of most Americans. It’s the same set of values that stacks the political deck against gay men, divorced women and countless other potential leaders who time and again are summarily disqualified from public office on the basis of non-normative lifestyle choices.

All of which brings me to Rep. Weiner, whose political future hangs in the balance as the voters of New York contemplate whether they will continue to support an elected official with a known penchant for online entertainment. In the days to come, we can expect all the major news organizations to bombard us with show after show contemplating Rep. Weiner’s fitness to lead (though in all fairness to Rep. Weiner, those pictures do make a pretty compelling case in the fitness department).

As Rep. Weiner’s constituents weigh their options, the revelation of his sexting habit doubtless will loom large. But why should it? If you don’t want to be in a committed relationship with a guy who gets off on instant messaging, don’t be. But you'd do well to keep in mind that a politician like Weiner isn’t asking for your hand in marriage. He's after your vote. And to earn it, what matters isn't the kind of husband he'd be—it's the kind of legislator he is.