When Arnold Schwarzenegger admitted on Tuesday that he had fathered a child with a member of his household staff, he kicked off one of the least surprising political scandals in history.
Sure, he managed to keep his secret for a long time. And the news that Schwarzenegger’s baby mama had continued to work in his family’s Brentwood mansion for more than a decade after giving birth to his child, despite the presence of wife Maria Shriver, was appalling. Then again, it doesn’t seem nearly as bad as having a child with your mistress during a presidential campaign — while your wife is dying of cancer. John Edwards set a very high bar for future political adulterers.
We’ve know at least since his 2003 campaign for governor that the Terminator had a long and rich history of groping women. Back then, surprise, surprise, Shriver played The Good Wife, appearing beside her husband during the waning days of the recall election. He admitted he had been “rowdy” on movie sets; she said the allegations of sexual misconduct “show why really good people don’t want to go into politics anymore.” This time around, Shriver, joined the small group of scorned political wives who refuse to stand by their man.
delusion: that they are entitled to have sex
with whomever they want, whenever they want.
In fact, the only truly startling aspect of the current sordid affair may be the sense of unbridled entitlement displayed by Schwarzenegger — and the long list of cheating politicians he joins. Schwarzenegger is not just a former governor; he’s an international celebrity, a former movie star and body building champion. How could be possibility think he could keep his out-of-wedlock child on the down low? How could he imagine his actions would not have dire consequences for everyone involved?
Yet he must have. And many other politicians seem to share the same delusion: that they are entitled to have sex with whomever they want, whenever they want. While the Schwarzenegger drama plays out in California, IMF boss Dominique Strauss-Kahn sits in a cell in Riker’s Island accused of raping a hotel housekeeper. Granted, there is big a difference between a consensual affair, even between a former governor and a housekeeper, and rape. But there is an uncomfortable theme of entitlement running through many political sex scandals.
Earlier this year, John Ensign sounded downright huffy when he resigned from the senate after having an affair with a former political aide whose husband also had worked for him and just happened to be a good friend. After Ensign and his mistress were busted by their spouses, Ensign’s parents gave the other couple a $96,000 “gift.” Yet Ensign mustered outrage at his shabby treatment by the Senate Ethics committee and the media. “I will not continue to subject my family, my constituents, or the Senate to any further rounds of investigation, depositions, drawn out proceedings, or especially public hearings,” he said in a statement.
scandals fluctuates, but politicians’ appetite for
extra-marital activity remains constant – constantly high.’
Doesn’t it seem like just yesterday that a weepy South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford claimed to be wandering the Appalachian Trail, when he was actually in Argentina with his mistress? Don’t forget former Florida congressman Mark (You’ve Got Mail!) Foley, Eliot (client 9) Spitzer, Larry (wide stance) Craig or former New Jersey Governor Jim (“I am a gay American”) McGreevy. Newt Gingrich was having and extramarital affair while he was leading the charge against President Bill (Monica Lewinsky) Clinton, the undisputed champion of entitled sexual behavior. And don’t forget Gary Hart, whose 1987 cruise with Donna Rice aboard the “Monkey Business” launched a new kind of political coverage. Even Arnold wasn’t so deluded as to challenge the media to catch him in an affair, as Hart did shortly after declaring his presidential candidacy.
I’ll try to speed it up: John F. Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe, FDR and Lucy Mercer, Grover Cleveland and Maria Halpin, Alexander Hamilton and Maria Reynolds, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Politicians have always cheated--in America and everywhere else and probably always will. “In the course of American history, the public’s tolerance of political sex scandals fluctuates, but politicians’ appetite for extra-marital activity remains constant – constantly high,” says Jonathan Darman, a journalist who covered the Edwards and Spitzer scandals and has studied the history of sex scandals.
Just as there is no shortage of philandering pols, there is no shortage of theories to explain their seeming inability to keep it in their pants. Perhaps politicians are narcissistic by nature. They tend to be adrenaline junkies and illicit sex can be a big rush, according to Fred Greenstein, a Princeton University professor emeritus of politics.
indiscretions, as long as the politician in
question seems really sorry, and the scandal
doesn’t involve other abuses of power.
But the best explanation is probably the simplest: Because they can. Because politicians have so much power and influence, they have many more opportunities to get into trouble, according to Daniel Kruger, a social and evolutionary psychologist at the University of Michigan. Henry Kissinger said it best, “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.” It may well work that way for women, as well, but because there are so few powerful female politicians we’ll have to wait to find out.
Surprisingly, voters are often willing to forgive sexual indiscretions, as long as the politician in question seems really sorry, and the scandal doesn’t involve other abuses of power, such as misappropriating funds, according to Alison Dagnes, associate professor of political science at Shippensburg University, and the editor of a collection of essays called, Sex Scandals in American Politics. That’s especially true of conservative, religious voters, she says. “Religion is about finding a solution to a personal problem,” she says. “People forgave Clinton.”
Which doesn’t mean politicians’ randy behavior and the ensuing media coverage doesn’t do real harm to the political system. Because candidates personal lives have become fair game, some good leaders with past indiscretions may be discouraged from seeking office. And while media outlets are battling for the latest sordid detail of a sex scandal -- Republican Senator David Vitter, liked to wear diapers; Spitzer wore black socks during intercourse -- voters are less likely to focus on more important political stories, such as the country’s looming fiscal crisis. So when the next round of salacious details about Schwarzenegger come out, try to think about the battle over raising the debt ceiling. We’ll all be better off for it.
Schwarzenegger Fathered a Child with Longtime Member of Household Staff (Los Angeles Times)
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Maria Shriver Announce Separation (Huffinton Post)
Wasted Courage (Slate)