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January 27, 2012 8:21 AM Being Prudish About Politicians’ Private Lives

By Michael Kinsley

Many years ago, when Senator Ted Kennedy was challenging President Jimmy Carter for the Democratic presidential nomination, I quit my job at a national magazine in protest over the owner’s refusal to publish an article I had edited about the senator’s extramarital activities.

At that time, there was a general consensus among Washington journalists that one didn’t do that sort of thing. (“That sort of thing” being reporting on politicians’ extramarital affairs. Having the affairs was OK.)

The article, which was eventually published in another magazine, didn’t discuss any actual affairs or name any names. It was an essay-argument that this kind of behavior was relevant to the citizens’ job of assessing the candidates, and that messing around by a married male politician reflected badly on that politician’s attitude toward women and, by extension, people in general. It suggested that he was willing to use people in a cavalier way.

The general rule at that time was that you shouldn’t write about a person’s private life. (The question whether the rule applied if the person volunteered information didn’t arise. Public confessions by celebrities and politicians didn’t become fashionable — and then routine — until later.) This was because marital infidelity was held to have nothing to do with how a politician did his job. The truth, though, was nearly the opposite: Yes, journalists thought that marital infidelity shouldn’t affect your assessment of a politician, but their motivation for not writing about it was concern that the voters might not be as enlightened. Voters could not be trusted with the information that their elected representative was sleeping around — they might wrongly hold it against him — so journalists kept it from them for their own good.

Elitism and Bias

This is just the kind of Washington elitism and bias that Newt Gingrich complains about so eloquently. And thank goodness someone is speaking out about … oh, wait. Never mind.

Anyway, my belief was that what passed for high ethical standards — not reporting on politicians’ private lives — looked like a conspiracy to suppress useful information. I also thought that politicians didn’t really try to keep their private lives private. (Our current president and his predecessor, Barack Obama and George W. Bush, have tried a lot harder.) Politicians didn’t mind posing for the cameras with their families coming out of church. They just didn’t want to be photographed with their mistresses coming out of a bar.

Then there was the fact that only rarely did journalists actually keep this private information about politicians private. They didn’t report it to their readers or viewers, but they generally couldn’t resist retailing these stories to colleagues until the tales gradually but inevitably became common knowledge among journalists, though still unknown by most of the public.

My bottom line: A politician’s so-called private life was fair game to the extent that your readers or your audience found it politically relevant. Not just interesting. Of course gossip is interesting. You had to believe that this information could affect how a significant fraction of the public would vote. You’d have to guess, naturally, but an honest guess would be that most people would hold adultery against a candidate. Therefore they had a right to know if the candidate was an adulterer, or a heavy drinker, or had similar private failings.

A lot of water over the dam since then. Kennedy divorced, settled down, remarried and eventually passed away. We’ve been through Gary Hart and Monkey Business, Monica Lewinsky, any number of obscure congressmen hustled quickly offstage by their party leadership, Senator Larry Craig (he of the “wide stance” at Minneapolis airport), and rococo variations like Representative Anthony Weiner, the Twitter flasher.

Race to Bottom

So what’s the standard today? And what should it be? The Internet virtually guarantees that any gamey information about a politician will probably come out. It has accelerated the so- called race to the bottom: Even if a news outlet makes a decision to suppress some information, less scrupulous competitors make that impossible. (The Washington Post once declared in an editorial that, while it didn’t report news based on rumors, sometimes the existence of a rumor, true or not, was itself news. This got the Post in tremendous trouble, but it’s actually quite true.)

What has changed since 1980 is my basic premise: that many voters — enough to matter — would find information about a politician’s private (i.e., sex) life politically relevant. Many, probably most, don’t. It turns out that the real sophisticates here are the voters. It’s the journalists who are prudes. I’m not saying this is a good thing. But it does change the equation.

When even evangelical Christians are willing to overlook a politician’s three marriages spiced with open adultery as long as he’s good on school prayer, we clearly have moved to a new point in this ongoing discussion.

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Comments

  • Anon on January 28, 2012 11:01 AM:

    Your premise that someone who conducts affairs is cavalier is flawed. First, several presidents, who are often considered among the best, have had affairs. Conversely some of the worst presidents have been exemplary in their marital life.

    People have affairs for all sorts of reasons. An ailing spouse, who has lost sexual appetite due to illness or drugs taken for that illness, who depends upon you for financial support and health insurance. Do you desert that long time partner, friend and former lover? Strikes me as cavalier. Seeking a discrete sexual outlet, may be a rational option for some.

    I am sure there are other examples on either side of the argument.

  • Newt's Mistress on January 28, 2012 1:44 PM:

    Sexual behavior becomes relevant when it is hypocritical, and an elitist "Do what I say, not what I do" condescension to 'the masses'.

    When Family Values hypocrites are busy dictating behavior to everyone but themselves, sexual behavior becomes relevant.

    Otherwise, not so much.

  • john sherman on January 28, 2012 9:20 PM:

    I remember when a drunk Wilbur Mills was caught cavorting in a fountain with a stripper, and eventually some of the media explained that they all knew that he was a drunk with a stripper for a girl friend, but they didn't think we needed to know. I was furious that they didn't think the fact that one of the most powerful men in the Congress was a raging drunk with spectacularly poor judgment was appropriate for political evaluation.

    That said, I'd still rather know who's giving them how much money.

  • Texas Aggie on January 28, 2012 9:26 PM:

    Several points were missing from this article. One is that mores have changed in the last thirty years so trying to make the point that the electorate has shown itself to be more mature than supposed by journalists thirty years ago is bogus. And saying that the fundies are willing to overlook Newt's behavior because he's on the right side of prayer in the school misses the point that his whole approach has been dog whistles to white supremacists. That rather than school prayer is what attracts the wing nuts. So nothing has changed along that line.

  • alien-radio on January 29, 2012 3:42 PM:

    There's a major piece of this missing. IOKIYAR. Moral failings that would get a democrat hounded by the press 24/7 on cable news as the talking heads work their way up toward a lynching are, when commited by a republican conveniently forgottenor ignored by the press unless the issue strays into live boy/dead girl territory. Sandford only really got in trouble for deriliction of duty while he was 'hiking the appalachian trail' the affair was kind of handwaved away by the media. David vitter didn't suffer any, and Gingrich has turned merely asking questions about a republican's moral lapses into a way to attack the media and win the hearts of the whackaloon base. These things are not possible for a democrat.

    Just to reiterate.IOKIYAR.

  • beb on January 29, 2012 4:03 PM:

    Why does Washington Monthly continue to publish articles by this disgraced ex-TNR editor?

  • Rich on January 29, 2012 11:30 PM:

    Kinsley misses the most obvious point which is that the "gossip" continues to be selective. The same people who reviled in Clinton's personal failings knew but didn't report that Gingrich was having an affair with a staffer. They probably didn't want to lose him as a source. Clinton was very much rejected by their set. It isn't that journos are prudes, they're selective in ways that distort the news. And their elitism enabled them to pile on Clinton while protecting Gingrich.

    At a certain point, even Gingrich's many admirers in the media seem to have lost interest in portraying him as some sort of statesman. that is an interesting story which hasn't been discussed. Early in the campaign, he was put forward as some sort of genius, even though just about everything political since the 1994 Congressional sweep has been a disaster for him. Now, he's treated more like the pathetic loud mouth he's always been.

    Kinsley was famously the most popular extra man at DC dinner parties during the 90s. He knows how the game is played and he'd rather spin this silly morality-ish tale than tell the truth.

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