Thursday, October 09, 2008

Susan Bordo: The truth and consequences of public figures' libidinal lapses

(Courtesy of Colleen Glenn)

School for Scandal: The truth and consequences of public figures' libidinal lapses
Chronicle of Higher Education

To some, our fascination with the sexual transgressions of the powerful doesn't need academic theory for explanation. "There's not much interest in foreign news," says Mark Feldstein, an associate professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, but "sex scandals are timeless. They go back to Alexander Hamilton's day. And everybody loves it."

Apparently I missed that particular history lesson. I am old enough, however, to have lived through both the conspiracy of silence surrounding John F. Kennedy's sexual affairs and the semen-stained exhibits produced by the Starr inquisition. A television junkie from early childhood, I have a brain overflowing with pop-culture images like family photos in an overstuffed album: Donna Rice on Gary Hart's knee, Ted Kennedy rambling on about the "various inexplicably inconsistent and inconclusive things" he said and did while Mary Jo Kopechne was dragged to the bottom of a channel off Chappaquiddick Island, Monica-in-beret on that meet-and-greet line twinkling at Bill. I have seen news programming bloat from 10 minutes long — barely time to ignore important foreign and domestic affairs in favor of sexual ones — to 24/7 broadcasting in which desperate commentators will do virtually anything to fill their overallotment of media time. I've seen good men get brought down by blow jobs and sociopaths get away with homicide. And I don't think Professor Feldstein's "timeless" quite captures the historical and individual range of scandal mongering and consuming.

Consider a tale of two politicians:

One, married to the same woman for 31 years, has a brief affair, which he confesses to his wife, a cancer survivor. She is furious, then forgives him, and together they try their best to keep the affair private. Two years later, after losing his campaign for the presidency of the United States, he is outed by The National Enquirer and is forced to fully admit his guilt. He is decried as a "scumbag" and a traitor to his wife, whose disease has by then recurred. He remains with his wife and family, but is exiled from public life. Although he was once a likely candidate for a cabinet position or possibly even vice president, commentators generally acknowledge that his public career is over.

The other, on his return from military service, finds that the wife he left behind, a former swimsuit model, has been in a horrendous auto accident, requiring 23 operations and leaving her limping and disfigured, a full five inches shorter than she had been when he left. After five years of casual affairs, he meets a beautiful young heiress, whom he secretly pursues for six months and eventually obtains a license to marry while still legally married to and living with his first wife. He remarries five weeks after his divorce is granted. Thirty years later, he becomes his party's candidate for president. During his campaign, few articles or media reports mention the first wife or the circumstances of his remarriage. It's as though she never existed.

You know who these guys are. I bet, however, that at least some of you didn't know about Carol McCain, wife No. 1, and with good reason. It's as though there is some anachronistic collusion — or mass delusion — sustaining the myth that the perfectly coiffed blonde, as primly glamorous as a Hitchcock heroine, is all there is and ever was. But you only have to count up the children, whose numbers rival Brad and Angelina's, to see how unlikely that is. Yet most journalists, while they frothed in indignation over John Edwards's dalliance with self-described party-girl Rielle Hunter, seem to have reverted in dutiful obedience to the JFK playbook in dealing with John McCain's truly shabby treatment of his ex-wife. The September 8 issue of Time, in 17 reverential pages devoted to Mr. and "Mrs. Maverick," mention the break-up, in a sidebar on "The Clan McCain," in one euphemistically constructed sentence: "After John returned from the war their marriage ended because of his infidelity." Oh, and it was "the marriage" that filed for divorce? (McCain exploited the same passive construction when describing his "greatest moral failure" — to evangelist Rick Warren, during his televised Saddlebrook faith forum — as "the failure of my first marriage.")

To Read the Rest of the Review Essay

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