It’s never a good idea to judge another person’s sexual peccadilloes too harshly. Illicit sex is a crime for which, given the opportunity, all of us have the motive. Thus today’s fire-and-brimstone preacher of morality is often tomorrow’s guy-arrested-in-a-Motel-6-handcuffed-to-a-male-stripper. Better to follow the great wisdom of the West in these matters: Let he that is without sin—namely no one—cast the first stone. Or, if you prefer Shakespeare: “Shame to him whose cruel striking/kills for faults of his own liking.”
Having said all that: What kind of creep-fest are New Yorkers staging this election, for crying out loud? As I’m hearing it out on the West Coast, the lead candidate for mayor is a guy who tweeted pictures of his dingus to various women and then publicly lied about it, and the comptroller race is between a whoremonger and the madam who supplied him. Really? The YMCA used to have a slogan: “Character counts.” In New York from now on, you ought to add, “For nothing.”
The madam is a libertarian and, as I understand it, a bit of a joke. But the dingus-tweeter, disgraced former congressman Anthony Weiner, and the hooker boy, disgraced former governor Eliot Spitzer, both Democrats, are considered serious candidates. That makes sense, I guess. The Democrats are the party that celebrated Teddy Kennedy as the Lion of the Senate, even after he drove his likely mistress into the drink and left her to drown. This is the party of a president who carried on a sleazy Oval Office affair with a woman half his age and had his minions slander and intimidate other women who plausibly accused him of rape and grotesque sexual harassment. And, of course, this is the party of former congressman Barney Frank, who fixed parking tickets for his gay escort lover but remained in office so he could help destroy the nation’s economy by facilitating bad housing loans.
Of course, the GOP has its share of sexual rogues and clowns. South Carolina governor Mark Sanford spent taxpayer dollars while carrying on an extramarital affair in Argentina and then (which is worse in my book) cried about it—and yet he still made a successful comeback run for Congress. Congressman Mark Foley took strong action against child pornography when he wasn’t sending sexually suggestive e-mails to underage male pages. And who could forget Senator Larry Craig, whose “wide stance” in an airport men’s room stall got him accused of trying to pick up the undercover cop one stall over? (Though why making advances on policemen in men’s room stalls is a crime I’m not exactly sure.)
On average, it seems to me, Republicans punish sexual transgressors more harshly, and certainly the left-wing media is relentlessly one-sided in the matter. Sanford, Foley, and Craig got no media quarter on the one hand, whereas on the other, Newsweek actually tried to bury the Clinton affair story, filmmakers turned out the documentary Client 9 to try to soft-soap Spitzer’s whoring, and NBC’s Today show brought on “experts” during the Weiner scandal to advise us to stop being so “puritanical” and get over it.
Should we get over it, I wonder? Is New York’s current Creep-Off election a token of the city’s sophistication, a harbinger of the end of the republic, or something in between?
Conscious of our own frailties, none of us should rush to play the puritan, it’s true. The so-called “character issue” that so-called journalists are always yammering about largely strikes me as a flimsy excuse to pornographize the news with straight faces. Any way you rationalize it, a humiliated spouse, a disgruntled paramour, even heartbroken children are really none of the public’s business. Judged individually, many sex scandals come to seem irrelevant after the first shock of contempt passes. Much as I dislike Anthony Weiner politically, he doesn’t seem to have broken any laws, and the worst that can be said about Bill Clinton’s proven indiscretions is that they demonstrate what a second-rate JFK he was even when it came to philandering.
And yet, in a larger sense, a society devoid of sexual shame is one in which the powerful are free to prey upon the weak for pleasure. In the moment of temptation, when personal integrity fails, the possibility of public disapproval may be all that stands between a trusting spouse and betrayal, a child and a broken home, a vulnerable young person and exploitation. There really is such a thing as being too sophisticated, too laissez-faire. Even worse is the cynicism that glosses over gross personal abuses to pursue political goals. I never once looked at Teddy Kennedy after Chappaquiddick without thinking of a 28-year-old campaign worker pounding helplessly on the window of a submerged Oldsmobile while the rich, powerful senator who put her there walked away with few consequences. Lion of the Senate, my eye!
Likewise, as I look at the New York Creep-Off from afar, I can’t help but question the great city’s wisdom. It’s not that people like Weiner and Spitzer should be hounded and condemned for their mistakes indefinitely. Let them go about their business. Truly, let them thrive. But when it comes to choosing leaders, can the city really find no one better? It’s a representative government, after all. Why can’t New Yorkers find someone who represents them at their best?