Monday, January 4, 2010

It’s the Adultery, Stupid

Politics is now about sex. Not just scandalous sex, not just who is having what kind of sex, but what we think about the sex each politician is having, or not having. Sex (sex, not gender) in politics is as significant a subtext as race.

It has the power to alter elections, undermine parties, and, possibly, change history. Barack Obama is running for president today because the ex-wife of his favored opponent in the 2004 Senate campaign in Illinois, Jack Ryan, said her husband took her to swingers’ clubs, handing the election to Obama.

Arguably, the Republican Party began its descent into possible oblivion when it lost its majority in 2006 not most of all because of George Bush’s serial failures but, more concretely, because Mark Foley, a Republican representative from Florida, groped or wanted to grope congressional pages—that seemed to sum up the G.O.P.’s vulnerabilities, hypocrisies, and grossness more than anything, even the war.

Eliot Spitzer represents not just an especially louche scandal but a shame-on-us moment because we didn’t see that Mr. Clean was Mr. Dirty. That’s a lesson for us: Don’t be snowed; assume the extreme. And that’s a lesson for politicians: Your official self can’t be so at odds with your sexual self—that’s what gives scandal its bite. Getting Spitzer wrong means we have to be more tenacious in our analysis.

We want to know. That’s a big part of Bill Clinton’s legacy: there’s always a sexual explanation. We’re savvy. Sex completes the picture—it explains so much. Tim Russert and other Sunday-talk-show hosts might maintain the illusion that politics is, or should be, a formal dialogue about impersonal issues, with sex only a topic of surprise, scandal, and shocked-shockedness, but in real life everybody is constantly and openly speculating on the sexual nature and needs and eccentricities of every rising and demanding political personality.

It’s a point of identification and differentiation. We vote for or against sex lives.

The Hillary story is—and how could it not be?—largely a sexual one. This is not so much a sexist view as a sexualist view: What’s up here? What’s the unsaid saying? What’s the vibe? Although it’s not discussed in reputable commentary, it’s discussed by everyone else: so what exactly is the thing with Hillary and sex, with the consensus being that she simply must not have it (at least not with her husband; there are, on the other hand, the various conspiracy scenarios of whom else she might have had it with). It’s partly around this consensus view of her not having sex that people support her or resist her. She’s the special-interest candidate of older women—the post-sexual set. She’s resisted by others (including older women who don’t see themselves as part of the post-sexual set) who see her as either frigid or sexually shunned—they turn from her inhibitions and her pain.

John McCain, with his burden of being the would-be oldest president, is helped not just by having his mother on the campaign trail but also by having a much younger wife. He is evidently still vital (that old euphemism). Even the suggestion, by The New York Times, that he might still be compulsively vital has not yet hurt him—quite possibly he gets a break because he’s an old guy. A randy codger seems harmless and amusing.

Fred Thompson, meanwhile, so vividly middle-aged—a whale of middle age—was out of the running almost as soon as his big-bosomed wife, 24 years younger than Fred, came into view and MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough suggested she could be a pole dancer. And if that didn’t do it, seeing the weary way he looked at his young children certainly did—here was a middle-aged man who had sexually overreached. Rudy Giuliani offered the most gutsy sexual Rorschach test. His view seemed to be that the problem with sex is that it suggests weakness—the lowest attribute for a politician. But if you approached your sexual weakness with brazenness and bullying, you’d get credit for being tough (implicit, too, was Rudy’s assumption that there was a viable constituency of guys’ guys who had something on the side). Mitt Romney’s problem was that he appeared asexual—1950s-television-style asexual, which seemed like its own sort of fetish. All this, with a digression into Eliot Spitzer’s activities, has been the real background and narrative of the campaign.

It’s helped make Barack Obama possible.

There is next to no speculation about Barack Obama’s sexual secrets. This is a seismic shift in racial subtext. The white men are the sexual reprobates and loose cannons (while Mitt and Hillary are just strange birds) and the black man the figure of robust middle-class family warmth.

Against these middle-aged people, he’s the naturalist, the credible and hopeful figure of a man who actually might be having sex with his smiling, energetic, and oomphy wife. (During the Spitzer affair, a friend of mine, a middle-aged white doctor and an active Obama supporter, curiously dropped into something like street talk to say Obama would never have the sex problems of middle-aged politicians, “because Michelle would whip his skinny ass.” A good man, in other words, is a controlled man.) He’s the only one in the entire field who doesn’t suggest sexual desperation. He represents our ideal of what a good liberal’s sex life ought to be.

Politics has become an odd and strained argument between men and women—which men seem to be losing—partly because it’s an argument not so much about politics as about men and their bad behavior.

Sex has become a political metaphor.

When a middle-aged politician has sex with someone other than his middle-aged wife, it represents, not least of all—because who would possibly want to have sex with these unattractive middle-aged politicians?—arrogance, a sense of entitlement, hypocrisy, and abuse of high office. A politician’s willingness to have sex with the young women who will have sex with him indicates self-destructiveness, a penchant for risky behavior, and flagrant lack of self-control.