I was thinking of former Rep. Anthony Weiner, who is now trying for a political comeback, while driving home from New Haven, listening to a blues hour out of a university radio station.
I’m not a blues devotee, but the lyrics about The Other Man and the Other Woman are hilarious. “You Can Take My Husband, Just Don’t Take My Man…” “I’ll be your Motel Lover…” “I Am a Back Door Man.” And the blues standard reminds us, it “ain’t nobody’s business” if we do.
Listening to these songs, I think that the sexual demimonde was in some ways more tolerated in the 1930s and 1940s than it is today. The affair and the mistress weren’t always told as moral tragedies. They also belonged, for example, to Hollywood’s screwball comedies of the early 1930s. Comedy-dramas such as Forbidden, comedies such as She Done Him Wrong, and dramas such as Blonde Venus, Gay Divorcee, and The Easiest Way present a subtle emotional range about the mistress’ life, triangulated love, marriage and re-marriage and the affairs in between. When the Hays Code went into effect, comedies artfully threaded the censorship needle with sharp-witted double entendre about sex and adultery.
At some point—maybe it was in the 1980s—the political media seems to have undergone a collective naïve-ification. Or, call it an erotic lobotomy, or a “wordliness-ectomy,” by which we lost whatever cool understanding we might have once possessed.
In terms of how Americans judge politicians, conventional wisdom holds that we’ve gotten steadily more sexually “liberated” and tolerant over the 20th century. That seems true with respect to premarital sex and homosexuality. But with respect to non-monogamy, the mistress, the affair, or occasional journeys into the sexual demimonde, we might have been more worldly-wise decades ago, and have become less so.
I pull some political books off my shelf. H.W. Brands’ biography of FDR, Traitor to his Class, has amusing passages about the mistresses of Washington in the 1920s and 1930s, all well known, all more or less part of the social weave. In one passage he describes how a wife returned hairpins she found on their bathroom floor to her husband’s mistress. The mistress responded that if the wife looked in the chandelier, she might find her panties, too.
President Grover Cleveland survived politically when he confessed that he might well have fathered a child out of wedlock, as he was accused, owing to an ongoing affair. Hampton Sides’ account of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination describes how FBI director Hoover had tried to destroy King by sharing details from the King sexual “dossier” to the press—evidence of his multiple mistresses, including a years-long affair with the wife of an African-American dentist in Los Angeles. “But the media never took the bait,” Sides writes. “We can’t even get our accomplishments published,” Hoover complained.
That’s almost incomprehensible discretion today, as is the discretion toward mistresses afforded to FDR, JFK and other presidents. Or, perhaps it wasn’t discretion so much as sangfroid, and a view of sexual affairs as irrelevant to the affairs of state.
For some, this zero tolerance for politicians’ sexual transgressions is a moral triumph.
I’m not so sure. No one endorses the deceit of adultery. But we’ve lost public service talent, turned otherwise decent humans into sexual villains in caricature, and ignored the real-life complications that can drive moral, smart and compassionate people to love more than one person (some would assert that a capacity for non-monogamy and loving more than one person is a default tendency over the course of a lifetime), or even just to do something tacky and dull-witted, like sexting semi-nude pictures of yourself.
Meanwhile, the spouses who have been betrayed aren’t even given the luxury to deal with the marital wounds in private, and on their own terms. Poor Huma Abedin! Anthony Weiner’s wife seems to be a living vortex for political nonsense. First she’s got to endure the cannonade of nosy judgment about Weiner’s sexting; then, she gets accused by Michele Bachmann of being a Muslim Brotherhood terrorist. What’s next for her, I’m afraid to imagine.
Some politicians (the indestructible Bill Clinton) make a second-act rebound from scandal, since America likes tales of redemption. But others have not.
This media and pundit sanctimony strikes me as a disingenuous “mock shock” stance. We know more than we let on. Affairs aren’t exactly inscrutable,shocking freaks of nature so far as human behavior goes.
Mere mortals who don’t opine on or host shows on MSNBC know people in their lives that they respect who have struggled with fidelity, or who have been entangled in what can expansively be called “marital issues.” They see that people’s feelings can change over decades.
Before “shades of gray” had a whole different meaning, I would summarize one insight from my book this way: While we talk about marriage in black and white, we more often live our marriages in complicated shades of gray.
But the mock shock barrage of the 24-7 media has the cumulative effect of making us sound as if we see no gray—and as if we understand, empathize, observe, feel, and know much less about life and the affairs of the heart than we really do.
Talking heads are expected to deliver condemnation, and they oblige, lest they look insufficiently judgmental. Even the New York Times’ reportage tittered over the presence of French president Francois Mitterand’s wife and mistress at his funeral, as if it were the craziest thing; as if there were no other way to react.
There are and were other ways to react: You could ignore it, stay silent about it, laugh about it, contextualize it as one part of a person’s moral and political worth, try to understand it, or—my personal favorite—try to figure out why it is that conventional expectations for marriage and married life in the 21st century don’t seem to be adapting so well, and lead more than a few husbands and wives in their 40s and 50s to tweak the rules, to reconsider how they want to be married, to call it quits, or to go blow off steam by doing what are admittedly sometimes self-destructive and career-destroying things. In other words, we can try to empathize.
Anthony Weiner was a solid progressive voice, and appreciated by his constituents.
Whatever the case, the man deserved more than to be undone by the media hyperventilation of mock shock.