Despite 15 trillion dollars of debt, we still give priority to sex scandals over economic scandals. Which may explain why we are so deep underwater. Imagine if a politician who grabbed a 100 million dollar pork project for his friends had to spend a week explaining it. That would almost certainly never happen. Not to a Democrat or even a Republican. Spending isn't salacious. But maybe it should be.
It is remarkable that we have spent more time and energy talking about whether a politician tweeted a pornographic image of himself, than the obscene 15 trillion debt that this politician, among so many others, saddled us with. But Bill Clinton's own impulse control problems in his personal life garnered more attention, than in his legislative affairs. Paula Jones has moved on, but America is still suffering from the shortcuts and legislation of the Clinton era.
It's not that Clinton had any right to turn the White House into his own personal whorehouse, but it was a symptom of a character flaw with much worse legislative consequences. Like bombing Yugoslavia, spending Social Security surpluses and turning Fannie Mae into a mortgage welfare outlet. The consequences of these things are very much with us. Two of them may have sent our economy into a depression and given time they will help destroy us completely.
But there's no metric for irresponsible legislative behavior by a politician. Only irresponsible sexual behavior. A scandal about Weiner pushing a law that bans personal information about judges from being posted on the internet wouldn't get very far. But a headline about him abusing Twitter. That's good as gold. But which is the greater abuse here? Which one endangers the republic more?
The proxy war between Obama and the Clintons over Weiner and the future of New York, with Obama using conservative bloggers as his foil, isn't really the issue here. It's how much are we willing to put up with. It's easy to hold politicians accountable for their peccadilloes. To ridicule their tawdry affairs and their shameful selves. One pol goes down, another rises and the cycle continues.
As long as sexual impropriety is more shameful than a 15 trillion dollar deficit, then we will have more deficits than sex scandals. A political culture where affairs are hidden, but spending is open is the problem.
Sex scandals aren't anything new in American politics. Back in the 1790's, a Scottish emigre, James T. Callender, exposed the affairs of both Hamilton and Jefferson. Like so many journalists today, Callender was a political mercenary who started out working for Jefferson against his political enemies, and ended up turning on Jefferson when he didn't get everything he thought was coming to him.
After centuries of politicians doing sleazy things, it's remarkable that the worst sex scandals in American history are only slightly younger than its Constitution. And there's a reason that we remember the Constitution and not the scandals. Time leaves us the laws that men make, while their scandals become a curiosity for historians. When their moral character is beyond our judgement, their laws still go on judging us.
The sex scandal derives from the perception of the politician as a moral leader. But who really believes in the morality of politicians? Jokes about the venality of the politician go back to Greece and Rome. If not even earlier. And the American form of government was not built on the incorruptibility of the politician, but on his very corruptibility. If the Founders had believed in the morality of elected officials, they would not have so carefully limited their power.
They understood what we have forgotten, that those who aspire to power are not to be trusted. And they understood that all the better because they did not even trust themselves. That is a quality our confident leaders lack today. Politicians on both sides are rarely given to moments of self-doubt. They never question the rightness of getting their own agenda through at any cost. And their supporters are taught to do likewise.
Clinton was right about the politics of personal destruction, but hypocritical in its application. The politics of personal destruction are universal. They always were. But today they hide the lack of content underneath.
To demonize or worship a politician is to lose the larger context of the issues beyond the personalities. Politicians rise and fall as celebrities, and no one pays attention to what they actually do outside the bedroom or the stage. No one notices what they really support or oppose. Or how similar to each other they are when the masks come off. The more hate is injected into the process, the more we focus on personalities and their individual quirks, the less we notice that they all vote for the same laws. Even the ones they claim to oppose.
The sex scandal has less to do with whether a politician did anything legally wrong, than with its utility in bringing him down. A campaign of moral outrage with no moral center. By people who don't really believe in the morality they're selling. Democrats insisted on calling Congressman Foley a pedophile, even when they knew it wasn't true. And when they had no objection to Barney Frank's shenanigans. The cynicism of moral outrage by people who don't believe in traditional morality reduces such scandals to nothing more than political opportunism.
national news magazines openly troll for religious bigotry in presidential elections and photographers aim for the sweet halo spot in their beloved leaders. And that just makes the outrage all the more hollow. The same media that elevated the Kennedys, who had their own private rape culture, to national sainthood, pretends to get outraged over what a member of the clan would consider a slow weekend. Not because they are outraged themselves. But because it sells papers and takes down a target in someone's political sights.
The same play runs on in the same theater. And by now everyone knows their parts. The politician insists that he's the victim. The newspapers make tabloid jokes and explain at length to the public what was involved. The experts speculate about his future. The damage control teams get to work. And the whole thing winds down with either a resignation or everyone forgetting and moving on. We've seen the spectacle in all its ugly glory. The spouse standing by her man, trying to decide if she loathes herself or him more, the journalists whose own personal lives are just as bad posing as moral arbiters and the public eating it up with a spoon while the country goes to hell.
Should we ignore political scandals? That's not the question. The problem is that we focus on the lesser scandals, rather than the bigger ones. The tabloidization of politics makes the task of misgovernment that much easier. And in the Scandal Nation the real crimes are forgotten, the real questions go unanswered, as a politician shamefacedly looks into the camera to answer for the least of his crimes.