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Sanford's Sordid Sex Saga: Why We Like Publicly Shaming Hypocrite Politicians

Last week, Gov. Mark Sanford participated in one of the oldest social rituals in American history: public shaming of the moral hypocrite.
 
 
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Nothing captures people’s attention more then watching an elected official cry before the national media. The spectacle of South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, shedding tears, admitting to an adulterous affair and pleading for forgiveness, “I’ve been unfaithful to my wife,” captured all media attention throughout the country. He is separated from his wife and children and stepped down as chairman of the Republican Governors Association.

He joins his fellow Republican, Sen. John Ensign (NV), who admitted an adulterous affair last week and resigned as chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, the party’s leadership group in the Senate.

The revelations about the two adulterous affairs by self-righteous Republican Christian pols continue the sad saga of sex scandals that have become part of the American body politics. It also further erodes the all-but-bankrupt moral standing of the Republican party and further cuts the ranks of Republican worthies preening as potential 2012 presidential candidates.

In all likelihood, additional political hypocrites will be outed in sex scandals, becoming media fodder. (We’re still awaiting the outing of the recently married Gov. Charlie Crist [FL] who has been long rumored as a closeted homosexual.) Sadly, like the earlier episodes among Republican and Democrat pols, the Sanford and Ensign scandals are tawdry affairs lacking the spectacle of many of the earlier outings that marks American political history.

The political question is simple: Will Sanford and Ensign remain in office or be forced to resign? Their respective decisions will determine the extent to which the culture wars is over. In the age of Obama, adultery should no longer be illegal as it still is in many states, nor should it be immoral, a subject of shaming. Adultery, like all other sexual activities, should be a private matter, the concern of only those most intimately involved.

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Over the last few years, Americans have watched with amusement as one pol after another was outed for his wayward sexual ways. The sex scandal momentum began to build in 2006 when Mark Foley was outed and intensified as revelations about Dan Sherwood’s adultery came out; revelations about religious leaders Paul Crouch and Ted Haggard only made things worse for the moralistic right. The subsequent outings of Larry Craig and David Vitter in ’07 intensified the issue of scandalous sex among the political class. However, revelations about John Edwards and Eliot Spitzer as well as Vito Fossella and Tim Mahoney before the ’08 election, seemed to have little impact on the national election which saw a shift in the balance of political power to the Democrats.

Numerous scandals occurred during the Clinton presidency that culminated in his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky and the Impeachment follies of 1998. Outings involved Senators Bob Packwood (R-OR) and Daniel Inouye (D-HI) and Representatives Ken Calvert (R-CA), Charles Canady (R-FL), Mel Reynolds (D-IL), Helen Chenoweth (R-ID) and Dan Burton (R-IN). Under the Clinton halo, these scandals are likely little known or all long forgotten

Adultery is a shadow haunting the Christian right. The Moral Majority was founded in 1979 proclaiming the sacredness of marriage and pushing for a Constitutional Amendment sanctifying the family. The Reagan era witnessed increased divorce rates and numerous politicians caught up in out-of-wedlock liaisons. The most publicized scandals of the period, involving Sen. Gary Hart (D-CO) and Rep. John Jenrette (D-SC), reflected the adulterer’s sense of power as much as his hypocrisy. Other scandals involving Sen. Roger Jepsen (R-IA) and Reps. Thomas Evans (R-DL), Sue Myrick (R-NC) and Arlan Stangeland (R-MN) only intensified the moral hypocrisy of the Moral Majority.

Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority against a background of political sex scandals. In 1979, Rep. Robert Bauman (R-MD) was arrested for soliciting a 16-year-old gay male dancer and Robert Leggett (D-CA) revealed that he had fathered two out-of-wedlock children in an adulterous relation with a congressional secretary and had an affair with another female aide (who became his wife). In 1978, New York congressmen Fred Richmond was arrested for soliciting a 16-year-old African-American delivery boy and an undercover police officer. A few years earlier congressmen from across the country, including Wilbur Mills (D-AK) and Wayne Hays (D-OH) as well as John Young (D-TX) and Allan Howe (D-UT), were involved in front-page scandals that destroyed their reputations and forced them from office. The Moral Majority was formed to stem the breakdown of traditional values, values often broken by its own constituency.