Sunday, March 30, 2008

Letting Mr. Happy Do All The Thinking

TMFW is off tending to the sick or something and asked me to offer a few words in his absence.

This week saw yet another politician's career threatened by a sex scandal. Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick of Detroit was indicted for lying under oath about the nature of his relationship with an aide, then spending millions of public dollars to settle a related lawsuit. Like former governor Elliot Spitzer, his extramarital dalliance led to criminal charges, but unlike Spitzer, he refused to resign. Since the charges, based on the most cursory review of the evidence, are obviously true, one wonders what his defense will be, but he's staying put. I'm sure his tenure as mayor will be highly productive. Kind of like Bill Clinton's second term.

I've heard some commentators over the last few years say that this hue and cry over personal pecadillos, and the concomitant wallowing in schadenfreude that ensues, is the product of the modern (i.e., television) press, that Kennedy, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and many, many others all had extramarital affairs but that the press never exposed them. Personal sexual matters were not considered relevant to one's fitness for office. Or maybe the old boy's club rules were such that this sort of behavior was just expected from powerful men and considered unremarkable. Or maybe keeping your mouth shut about girlfriends was just part of the price of access, and if you were a reporter, access was more important than one story about an affair.

Maybe so, but sex scandals have been part of our country from the start. There's nothing recent about them Alexander Hamilton was bedeviled while in office by stories about his affair with the notorious Mrs. Reynolds and subsequent blackmailing by her husband. Stories about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings were circulating in his lifetime. Both managed to stay in office despite the stories.

Years ago, TMFW and I were talking about Wilbur Mills, who had been a powerful congressman from Arkansas who got busted, drunk, by a park cop in a compromising position with a stripper, who promptly jumped up and splashed across the reflecting pool in the Capitol Mall. TMFW, then known by a more colorful nickname, explained Mills' conduct as "Letting Mr. Happy do all the thinking."

A long sting of politicians, several per year, every year, Republican and Democrat, gay and straight, have gotten in trouble for letting Mr. Happy do all the thinking. Some, like Mills, Wayne Hays, Jon Hinson, lose their jobs. Some, Like Spitzer and Kilpatrick, get indicted for their liasons. Some, like John Jenrette and Edwin Edwards, get indicted for something else, like taking bribes. Some. like Barney Frank, Dan Burton, Alexander Hamilton, Henry Hyde, Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich, shake it off and continue their careers. Some, like Bob Packwood and Bob Livingston, get invited to resign by the bodies to which they were elected. Some, like Gary Condit and Wayne Hayes, run for re-election and lose, blaming the press' unrelenting focus on irrelevant details of their personal lives for the loss. Some, like Mills and Jenrette, blame the booze. Some gay-bashers, like Jon Hinson, Larry Craig, and Robert Bauman, make the surprising claim that having lots of gay sex with other men is not a sign that they're gay. But it's always humiliating and always bad for your political prospects, unless you're Edwin Edwards.

So why do they do it? Because they think they're going to get away with it. The kind of man who runs for office is used to taking risks, and the kind who gets elected is used to getting away with it. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Strom Thurmond and Franklin Roosevelt all did. In the rare case, a pol will achieve a heightened reputation for roguish charm, like Edwin Edwards and Aaron Burr. Politicians just seem to see themselves as entitled to do whatever they want, and proceed to do so, and in this age of text messages, cameras, tape recordings, e-mail, and television, where every mistake can be captured then played on Youtube for the amusement of computing public, lots and lots of them are going to get caught.

I don't know that our keen interest in this kind of news has lost us any excellent public servants. Spitzer was a jerk who wasn't getting anything done, as was Gary Condit. John Jenrette was a drunk. Bill Clinton kept his job, although the sex scandal was such a distraction that I don't remember much getting done in his second term. Whether we've suffered as a nation because of any of these scandals is debatable. Someone's always ready to take the job that's vacated. And a case can be made that the way politicians live their personal lives has no bearing on the way they carry out their public duties. No one, for example, thinks the public has any legitimate interest in knowing what candidates do in the bedroom with their own spouses. Still and all. People are interested in the sexual adventures of public figures, and this is unlikely to change.

Politicians could protect themselves, of course, by keeping their zippers zipped and being faithful to their spouses.

Since that's not going to happen, we can look forward to another one of these stories every few months, we can smack our heads and ask "How could he be that stupid?"

Answer: He's a politician. Mr. Happy does his thinking for him. They're just like that.


tmfw said...

Nice job boys! Thanks for pitching in while I was up in the country.

BTW...what was my colorful nickname back in the day? I don't recall.....

Polycarp said...

You were known in those days, somewhat cruelly, as Pathfinder. You were christened this by someone whose own nickname was Fat Boy.