What bars someone from holding high political office? Just when we think we know the rules, they change.
Certain transgressions have always been career-killers. Few politicians have withstood revelations of egregious corruption, violent crime or child pornography—although voters, it should be added, have proved surprisingly forgiving toward their favorite representatives. More than a few over the decades have even won reelection from prison.
But if some serious misdeeds can be counted on to inflict serious damage, the significance we’ve placed on others has varied widely. Taboos on divorce and homosexuality in the 1950s gave way by the 1980s to moral policing over drug use, infidelity and draft-dodging, and today—as the political turmoil in Virginia and elsewhere is showing—a new set of inviolable behaviors is emerging, from sexual harassment to wearing blackface years ago to other forms of racial offense. And the speed with which the offenses have become sacrosanct suggests that they’re sure to generate many more scandals in the months and years ahead.
To see how quickly political morality can change, recall that within the lifetimes of many living Americans, great shame attached simply to getting divorced. Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic presidential candidate in 1952 and 1956, was the first major-party nominee to have been divorced—a fact that caused muttering and disapproval and probably hurt his already-low chances against Dwight D. Eisenhower. A few years later, when New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller divorced his wife for a younger woman, Republicans denied him his party’s nod in 1964—though his liberalism on civil rights probably hurt him more.
If divorce carried a whiff of disrepute, being openly gay in politics was unheard of. There surely were a handful (or more) of gay officeholders, but no one dared test the taboo until the 1980s, so there’s no way to know. Occasionally, however, high-level appointed officials were publicly outed under embarrassing circumstances, like State Department official Sumner Welles, who in 1940 was caught propositioning a Pullman car porter, or Lyndon B. Johnson’s aide Walter Jenkins—arrested in 1964 in a YMCA men’s room. When exposed, they had no choice but to resign—making it clear that any gay senator or governor uncovered also would have suffered. Yet, curiously, in this same period, many successful politicians, including Presidents Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Johnson, had affairs without worry. Though open secrets in Washington circles, their dalliances remained unknown to the public because affairs were widely deemed part of one’s private life—not news that was fit to print.
Then came the 1960s and a massive change in Americans’ standards. Divorce, no longer a violation of a sacred pact, was treated as a lifestyle choice, a reasonable decision made by autonomous adults in pursuit of happiness. To question its morality seemed quaint, even puritanical. By 1980, Ronald Reagan’s divorce from actress Jane Wyman scarcely warranted comment. Meanwhile, the sexual revolution made Americans more comfortable with homosexuality—though it would take until the 1980s before any national politicians willingly came out of the closet. Longtime Massachusetts Representative Barney Frank is usually cited as the first national officeholder to voluntarily identify as gay.
Just as instrumental in changing how Americans assessed their leaders were the Vietnam War and the Watergate crisis. To many, it seemed self-evident that those catastrophes were rooted in the tangled neuroses of Presidents Johnson and Richard Nixon—both of whom showed signs of narcissism and paranoia. Thereafter, reporters resolved to scrutinize the character of presidential aspirants and other politicians. The large-scale deception that Johnson and Nixon had engaged in brought forth candidates who ran on honesty and authenticity—most notably Jimmy Carter, who reached the White House by telling voters he would never lie to them. Like all presidents, though, he did, albeit not on a Nixonian scale.
But if “character” in a general sense meant honesty and integrity, in practice reporters came to define it idiosyncratically. Just as divorce and homosexuality represented taboos of an older generation, new definitions of character encompassed the special preoccupations of the baby boom generation at midlife. Specifically, it meant whether you’d engaged in adultery, draft-dodging or drug use.
Before the 1980s, those extramarital affairs that made it into the headlines could be damaging, but most didn’t, and weren’t. In the age of the feeding frenzy, however, journalists deemed the extramarital doings of politicians to be fair game. In 1987, when Colorado Senator Gary Hart was running for president, Washington Post reporter Paul Taylor, aware like much of the press of persistent infidelity rumors and Hart’s holier-than-thou posturing, asked the candidate, “Have you ever committed adultery?”—part of a 45-minute grilling about his marriage and private life. Reflecting the dismay of an older generation, New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis called this interrogation a “low point” for his profession. But the exposure of Hart’s liaisons with Donna Rice prodded the candidate to quit the race, and similar inquiries into other politicians’ sex lives intensified.
Eventually, the unpopularity of the impeachment of President Bill Clinton diminished the media’s appetite for digging into stories of consensual adultery. Although Clinton’s pursuers claimed to be impeaching him for perjury, and not adultery per se, most people saw the truth in Arkansas Senator Dale Bumpers’ quip that “when you hear somebody say, ‘This is not about sex,’ it’s about sex.” A decade later, many Republicans would come around to the same view, after the New York Times ran a thinly sourced article insinuating that John McCain, then the likely Republican presidential nominee, was sleeping with a 40-year-old lobbyist. That article fell flat, bringing more scorn on the Times than on McCain. Ever since, scandals centering on unremarkable consensual affairs—as opposed to those about frequenting prostitutes (Eliot Spitzer, David Vitter), pursuing minors (Mark Foley, Anthony Weiner), or paying hush money (John Ensign)—have failed to arouse the indignation they once did.
Meanwhile, it’s hard to remember that all kinds of politicians were once routinely asked whether they’d used drugs, including pot. A semicandid admission to having “experimented with marijuana in college”—evoking legions of chemistry majors opting for political careers—might satisfy the morals police, but when Supreme Court nominee Douglas Ginsburg confessed in 1987 to having smoked it with law students, his nomination went up in smoke. The next year, rumors that GOP vice presidential nominee Dan Quayle had bought marijuana led to a short-lived media furor—one of many surrounding Quayle that summer—but the stories were never substantiated. Quayle soldiered on dealing with only the minor nuisance of reporters constantly ridiculing his intellect.
Soon, the idea that youthful recreational drug use reflected bad character also lost traction. When Clinton ran for president in 1992, he felt compelled to explain that while he’d tried pot, he “didn’t inhale”—an admission that elicited more mockery for his dorkiness than praise for his candor. By the time Barack Obama ran in 2008, the taboo was mostly gone, and he could portray himself as younger and hipper, saying, “When I was a kid, I inhaled. That was the point.” He even went so far in his much-praised memoir to admit to having used not just “pot” and “booze” but even “a little blow when you could afford it.” Efforts by Hillary Clinton allies like BET founder Jim Johnson to politically exploit Obama’s drug use in 2008 backfired.
As for avoiding Vietnam, that generational kulturkampf too seems to have played itself out. Draft-dodging wasn’t ever quite a career-ender—maybe because so many baby boomers did it—but for years politicians faced constant grilling about why they hadn’t fought in the war. In 1988, Quayle (again) was battered for having used family connections to join the National Guard, so that he wouldn’t see combat in Vietnam. But he managed to ride out the outrage. Likewise, Bill Clinton in 1992 and George Bush in 2000 and 2004 withstood criticisms for contriving to avoid service. Dick Cheney’s famous excuse was: “I had other priorities.” Neither Clinton’s nor Bush’s draft avoidance kept them from the White House, and by 2016, Donald Trump’s Vietnam draft dodging probably didn’t rank in the Top 100 reasons people cited for voting against him in November.
As the power of this odd troika of issues to exact a political toll diminishes, it’s tempting to conclude that we’ve grown more tolerant and forgiving. But is that really the case? The linguist John McWhorter has argued, analogously, that while we may fancy ourselves more open-minded about language—with once-verboten words like “fuck” and “shit” now ubiquitous—in fact, we’ve merely learned to abide the classic four-letter vulgarities and profanities dealing with God, sex and excrement. With words expressing animus toward African-Americans, women and gay people, we’re more censorious than ever. Maybe this is because sensibilities have changed, and to modern ears the words “fuck” and “shit” don’t actually hurt anyone, whereas the forbidden slurs—when directed at people—can wound others. Controversially, many people now seem ready to ban these noxious words not only when used as epithets, but also while describing what someone else wrote or said.
In the same way, political offenses that don’t seem to directly harm others—pot use, for example—carry less of a stigma today, while actions that show hostility toward women and minorities have understandably become toxic. This represents a big shift. It used to be that telling ethnic jokes — as Ronald Reagan often did — or telling a lesbian joke, as Senator Bob Kerrey did during the 1992 campaign, would get you in hot water, but it didn’t bring pressure to withdraw from a campaign or quit your job. Likewise, for men to casually pat women on the bottom, uninvited, was shamefully commonplace for decades; it wouldn’t elicit more than a dirty look.
Today, the act of having worn blackface as young men decades ago is threatening the political livelihoods of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring—and similar offenses are dogging other politicians too. Overt racial insults have been politically damaging for a long time, from Jeff Sessions repeatedly calling a black attorney “boy,” to George Allen calling an Indian-American at a campaign rally “macaca.” But other forms of racism, like blackface, were, in the more racially benighted climate of those not-too-distant times, shamefully tolerated in many quarters. Though objectively as racist in the 1980s as it is today, blackface wasn’t deemed grounds for cutting short a political career; if it had been, many more careers would have been ended. But Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan, to cite one example, was revealed in 1999 to have worn blackface at 26, and retained the support of most black voters. New York Assemblyman Dov Hikind did so as part of a costume as recently as 2013 and drew only criticisms, not unanimous howls for his resignation. The ugly reality is that not only yearbooks, school newspapers and other high-school and collegiate ephemera, but also mainstream movies and magazines contained passages, images and scenes that we look back on today and cringe.
Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax’s predicament, too, is a sign of the times. For much of our past, allegations like those Vanessa Tyson and Meredith Watson have leveled against him might never have come to light—allowing men to imagine not that such violent behavior wasn’t wrong but that it wasn’t politically lethal. Now it frequently is. Indeed, potential Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Steve Bullock are under fire not for sexually harassing anyone themselves but for failing to adequately punish or alert others about harassers on their staffs—a scrutiny they surely wouldn’t have encountered even a few years ago. Even Elizabeth Warren’s struggle to put her account of having Native American ancestry behind her reflects our rapidly evolving standards of political morality. Having been raised to think she was part Native American, she went through life sporadically identifying as such—only to find, in a changed environment, that her unthinking flirtation with this identity would be seen as opportunistic by the right and insensitive by the left.
Which of these politicians will weather their scandals and which will be permanently disgraced remains to be seen. The uncertainty of their fates suggests to us that we’re in a time of fluctuating expectations, newly adopted standards and reinvented morality. Debates will continue over the proper sanctions for their actions, because that’s how a political culture establishes its norms. And just when we think we understand the rules, we should be prepared for them to change again.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
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The Article Was Written/Published By: David Greenberg