Puritanical America, J’Accuse!

When it comes to the private lives of politicians, laissez faire

French President Nicolas Sarkozy—renegade Gallic right-winger and scourge of les pouvoirs-qui-sont—campaigned on an image as the ruthless reformer of a defunct bureaucracy and a law and order fanatic. As Minister of the Interior, he rejected the liberal elite’s Chamberlain-complaisance amid the swells of exurban civil unrest, denouncing the young, disaffected, and largely Arab agitators as “racaille” (rabble), an inflammatory move many considered imprudent.

But his presidency has thus far been rather tranquil, at least on the political front; most of his promised reforms have wilted before the French Leviathan. The real story has been of the prurient tabloid variety: Sarkozy’s romantic liaison and subsequent marriage to Italian supermodel Carla Bruni. As the two gallivanted around Paris and jetted to the Middle East, Europeans were titillated. Americans, by contrast, looked on in disbelief as Sarkozy flaunted his extramarital relationship with a gorgeous diva, the former lover of Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton, and Donald Trump, who openly boasts of her “preference” for polygamy. And Bill Clinton, we exclaim, was pilloried because he got a blowjob from some chunky and unremarkable intern?

America will always have its puritanical zealots, inanely demanding the utmost in chastity from our nation’s leaders, under the impression that there is some kind of indissoluble link between private rectitude, public service, and divine munificence. But those of us living in the “reality-based community” know this frankly to be false. Not only can we draw on countless examples of sexual extravagance among celebrated pre-democratic statesmen, we know some of our greatest Presidents to have been shameless adulterers, or worse (see: Thomas Jefferson).

Yet most of us also perpetuate that hypocritical axiom of American politics: that the slightest whiff of sexual misconduct means a devastating fall from grace. Of course, the guillotine of public shame is applied quite arbitrarily. Clinton was impeached while his sanctimonious accuser Newt Gingrich cheated on his wife in the cancer ward. Not that this is necessarily a partisan issue, either: Sen. Larry Craig was positively marooned by his Republican Party—presumably because its members find cloacal homosexual activity abominable—while his Louisiana counterpart David Vitter emerged unscathed from an encounter with the “D.C. Madam”. One suspects the Senate was less than eager to get to the bottom of that one.

This brings us to the breaking news: yesterday’s implication of New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s involvement in an upscale Washington prostitution ring. Spitzer’s downfall is particularly “tragic” in the Greek sense of the word: His meteoric rise to power closely mirrored Sarkozy’s. Existentially pugnacious, detested and admired at once, Spitzer paid his dues as New York’s Attorney General, where he dazzled with his unflinching resolve to take on Wall Street corruption and white-collar crime. He won himself a fair number of enemies but even more supporters; they catapulted him to the governorship and placed him among the Democratic Party’s most promising young politicians. Despite political stumbles, he was being considered for the national stage.

Until yesterday’s revelation. To be sure, Spitzer is not to be pitied. He was the victim of his own bad karma and rank hypocrisy (he orchestrated the bust of a prostitution ring as New York attorney general in 2004). Still, isn’t there something shamefully dishonest about a culture that obsesses over the sex lives of its elected officials? They are, after all, mere men and women, as vulnerable as any to the snares of carnal desire. Their position of power simply invites attention.

The existence of a private sphere is one of the sacrosanct tenets of a healthy liberal democracy. Yet while the average American considers his bedroom a sancto sanctorum, he doesn’t hesitate to deny the public servant the same privilege. If we reserved as much moral indignation for serious issues—like our engagement in a senseless and costly war—as we do for our politicians’ sexual peccadilloes, things might not be going so badly.

Bush and Cheney don’t seem like lascivious types, but it may be that this potent combination of sexual sublimation and free time in fact explains the administration’s misguided Iraq adventure. As the Athenian women in Aristophane’s Lysistrata and today’s French know all too well, more time fucking means less time for fucking up the world.

David L. Golding ’08, a Crimson editorial editor, is an English concentrator in Dunster House.