Politicians vs. temptation

Amid so many sex scandals, recall the few who adhered to the moral law.

Sometimes you don't know whether to laugh or cry when you hear about the latest politician caught having a mistress or toe-tapping at a public restroom.

So much for upholding the public trust; they couldn't even be trusted by their own wives.

The recent string of duplicitous political husbands, humiliated wives, and children morally abandoned by their fathers calls to mind an instructive passage from T.H. White's classic novel, "The Once and Future King." Retelling the Arthurian saga and the unraveling of Camelot after the extramarital affair between Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, Mr. White wrote, "[W]oman was the first to know God's laws are not long mocked."

Men rarely seem to get that.

Half a century ago, Europeans laughed at how prudish Americans were about sex. Today, Republican and Democratic politicians alike are overcompensating. They seem to be as addicted to sensuality as some teenage boys.

It is still not clear whether the shame and penance expressed by figures such as Mark Sanford, John Ensign, Eliot Spitzer, and Larry Craig is because they now realize they were doing something terribly wrong or simply because they got caught. The cynical reporter in me suspects the latter.

It used to be patriotism that was the last refuge of a scoundrel. Today it's the claim of conversion to rectitude in front of a battery of television cameras, often after a tearful confession.

Writing during the 1920s, H.L. Mencken coined an eternal truism when he wrote, "[T]he only way for a reporter to look on a politician is down." During the 15 years I served as a reporter in Washington, it was easy to snicker at senators who chased their secretaries around desks or representatives whose offices looked like bordellos.

Yet, if truth be told, not everyone in Washington gave in to temptation. I knew Gerald Ford as Republican minority leader, vice president, and then president. He was devoted to his wife, and there was never the slightest hint of another woman in his life in the 30 years I knew him.

The same strict adherence to private morality was observed by President Jimmy Carter, despite the fact his personal religious values invited public ridicule.

Looking for a common thread in their deep private decency, it seems that underneath the obligatory public religiosity we require of our politicians, Mr. Carter and Mr. Ford really understood that the function of the moral law for elected officials is not only to protect themselves and their families, but also to shield the republic.

Both of those presidents understood that there is no difference between an elected official's public and private morality.

Corruption of public life on any level is serious business – witness those politicians found to have used public funds to pay for their illicit trysts. That is more than a misdemeanor. It speaks broadly to the general degraded condition of society, for which our fallen politicians are not entirely to blame.

We encourage their human frailties by investing confidence (and often money) in them, which easily corrupted mortals do not deserve. We pamper them, praise them, and give them lives of privilege. Do they have to hunt for parking places, battle crowds at the mall, or undergo demeaning security searches at airports?

We encourage the illusion that politicians are people of superior virtue. After all, we see them on the TV news, which tends to promote blind adulation. Our politicians are no more immune to celebrity status and its seductions than are the beautiful women and virile men that Hollywood casts as its stars.

The Founding Fathers intended public officials to be public servants, not a ruling class above the law. Yet that is what we have bought ourselves, with the help of CNN, Fox News, and CSPAN.

Power does not so much corrupt, as Lord Acton suggested, as it seduces. A politico's illicit sexual trysts are but the most titillating facet of a greater personal seduction.

Just as it was easy for Richard Nixon to say, "If the president does it, it is not illegal," so it is a similar self-deception that persuades our elected officials to believe they are immune to statutory and moral law.

This delusion is not unlike a child blowing soap bubbles. At first, the bubbles seem beautiful and soar, until gravity returns them to earth and they burst.

Our sexually ensnared public officials indulge in similar self-delusion until two other universal laws engage. First, "illicit love only lasts till you get caught," and second, "there are no secrets in public life."

Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column for the Monitor's weekly edition.

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