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The Good Husbands

Steve Benen of the Carpetbagger Report has an interesting piece in the latest issue of The Washington Monthly, noting that three of the top potential Republican candidates are admitted adulterers.

Until relatively recently, a self-confessed adulterer had never sought the presidency. Certainly, other candidates have been dogged by sex scandals. In the 1828 presidential election, John Quincy Adams questioned whether Andrew Jackson’s wife was legitimately divorced from her first husband before she married Old Hickory. Grover Cleveland, who was single, fathered a child out of wedlock, a fact that sparked national headlines during the 1884 election (though he managed to win anyway). There have been presidential candidates who had affairs that the press decided not to write about, like Wendell Wilkie, FDR, and John F. Kennedy. And there have been candidates whose infidelities have been uncovered during the course of a campaign: Gary Hart’s indiscretions ultimately derailed his 1988 bid, and in 1992, during the course of his campaign, Bill Clinton was forced to make the euphemistic admission that he "caused pain" in his marriage.

But it wasn’t until 2000 that McCain, possibly emboldened by Clinton’s survival of his scandals, became the first confessed adulterer to have the nerve to run. Now, just a few years after infidelity was considered a dealbreaker for a presidential candidate, the party that presents itself as the arbiter of virtue may field an unprecedented two-timing trifecta. McCain was still married and living with his wife in 1979 while, according to The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof, "aggressively courting a 25-year-old woman who was as beautiful as she was rich." McCain divorced his wife, who had raised their three children while he was imprisoned in Vietnam, then launched his political career with his new wife’s family money. In 2000, McCain managed to deflect media questioning about his first marriage with a deft admission of responsibility for its failure.

It’s possible that the age of the offense and McCain’s charmed relationship with the press will pull him through again, but Giuliani and Gingrich may face a more difficult challenge. Both conducted well-documented affairs in the last decade–while still in public office. Giuliani informed his second wife, Donna Hanover, of his intention to seek a separation in a 2000 press conference. The announcement was precipitated by a tabloid frenzy after Giuliani marched with his then-mistress, Judith Nathan, in New York’s St. Patrick’s Day parade, an acknowledgement of infidelity so audacious that Daily News columnist Jim Dwyer compared it with "groping in the window at Macy’s." In the acrid divorce proceedings that followed, Hanover accused Giuliani of serial adultery, alleging that Nathan was just the latest in a string of mistresses, following an affair the mayor had had with his former communications director.

But the most notorious of them all is undoubtedly Gingrich, who ran for Congress in 1978 on the slogan, "Let Our Family Represent Your Family." (He was reportedly cheating on his first wife at the time). In 1995, an alleged mistress from that period, Anne Manning, told Vanity Fair’s Gail Sheehy: "We had oral sex. He prefers that modus operandi because then he can say, ‘I never slept with her.’" Gingrich obtained his first divorce in 1981, after forcing his wife, who had helped put him through graduate school, to haggle over the terms while in the hospital, as she recovered from uterine cancer surgery. In 1999, he was disgraced again, having been caught in an affair with a 33-year-old congressional aide while spearheading the impeachment proceedings against President Clinton

 Benen wonders, in light of the recent page one above the fold NT Times’ dishy speculation about the Clintons’ sex lives, whether the press will follow up when the Republican primaries begin in earnest. I frankly doubt it. The CW seems to be that Clinton rules only apply to Democrats. Republicans are allowed to hypocrites because, well… just because. But there is one little fly in the ointment for the GOP, whether Modo and Lil’ Russ apply certain standards to their moral behavior or not:

 But if GOP operatives dangle the infidelity bait, and the press fails to bite, its importance to Christian conservatives won’t be so easy to ignore. Since the press awoke to the phenomenon of evangelicals in 2000 and so-called "values voters" in 2004, reporters have become fond of gaming out every possible permutation of evangelicals’ political concerns. Evangelicals’ attitudes towards the marital problems of McCain, Giuliani and Gingrich might actually deserve such an inquiry. In 2000, for example, James Dobson issued a personal press release specifically to "clarify his lack of support for Senator McCain." "The Senator is being touted by the media as a man of principle, yet he was involved with other women while married to his first wife," Dobson said.

These remarks received little attention in 2000, possibly because reporters hadn’t yet grasped the extent of Dobson’s influence, but Carrie Gordon Earll, a spokesperson for Dobson’s Focus on the Family, recently made it clear that the adultery issue hasn’t lost any of its toxicity among evangelicals. "If you have a politician, an elected official, and they can’t be trusted in their own marriage, how can I trust them with the budget? How can I trust them with national security?" she asked me. Although Earll was reluctant to discuss specific politicians, she noted that a candidate who "had an affair and then moved on and restored that marriage" might find forgiveness with Christian conservatives, but someone "who had an affair and then left his wife" would not.

Now, I find that interesting, don’t you? There is only one politician among all the adulterous sinners of ’08 who could possibly meet Dobson’s criteria for forgiveness: Bill Clinton. I think we can all feel fairly confident that the religious right will not embrace a Hillary candidacy anyway. But I happen to think that McCain is the most formidable challenge to the Democrats in 2008. He’s the guy Junior pretended to be — and the maverick-who-has-always-been-his-own-man the Republicans would love to be able to throw up there as big Daddy who’s gonna fix everything. If he can get past James Dobson he’s going to be tough to beat, I think.

 How can the religious right come to terms with this? (I ask that only rhetorically. We know that they are hypocrites coming and going.) But this could be a successful wedge issue that forces the religious right to either cop to their true permissiveness on an issue they use as a cudgel to beat liberals over the head, namely the sanctity of marriage. Or it will expose them as the rigid, unrealistic tight-asses they really are, and perhaps brand the GOP further as the party of … unrealistic tight-asses. It’s worth thinking about a little bit.

Benen’s article also mentions that if the press decides to run its usual double standard that bloggers are prepared to take up the slack. I think I can speak for everyone here tonight when I say, "damn right." I have never been as appalled in my life as when the Republicans and the DC media establishment freakshow decidedduring the lewinsky scandal  to hold a national hen party on what constituted a proper marriage. It was the most unctuous, hypocritical, sanctimonious display of phony piety I have ever had the misfortune to witness. These high powered celebrities all wringing their delicate hands over sexual indiscretions as if all of them hadn’t been witness to or participants  in countless examples of marital foibles and error. Yet, they all pretended to be pure as novitiates, delicate and easily startled by the notion that marriage, particularly long term modern marriage, is a little bit more complicated than a romance novel plot line.

Indeed, if I didn’t know better, I would have assumed that the Republican party, the religious right and the DC press corps were conspiring to destroy the institution of marriage within their lifetimes. Gay people wanting to participate isn’t the problem; they are buying into the great old creaky thing, strengthening it for all. What threatens it is this idea that strangers can intrude on this most deep, complex and intimate of relationships and shine a harsh spotlight on all the things we do to keep it going over years of compromise, adjustment, excitmement, boredom and love — and then cast judgment on our choices. If you want to destroy marriage, force everyone to submit to James Dobson, Chris Matthews and Cokie Roberts sitting at the end of their beds running a scorecard on whether their union is acceptable.

I’m against delving into people’s private lives. In fact, it makes me sick. But, when we start to see this happen (and I think the New York Times and the Washington Post have made it quite clear that they are going to fall right back into Clinton rules the minute they get the chance) we are going to have to fight back. If they are going to use it against Democrats, the adulterous sinners of the GOP are going to get a taste of this medicine and see how much they like it. The three amigos seem ripe for the picking to me. 

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