Private Lives and Public Impacts

We know all about the sex lives of famous Americans. But the more we know, the less we have to say; the more we pry, the less we judge.Aren't we curious? We Americans are obsessed by gossip. We watch "Hard Copy" to learn about Frank Gifford's indiscretion. We buy The Globe to find out about Paula Jones or what happened to the teenaged babysitter in a Kennedy mansion. But the more gossip we hear, the more we are inclined, finally, to shrug.After weeks of hearing about Kelly Flinn, the first woman B-52 pilot, we know that she had an affair with a married man, that she is a liar, and that she disobeyed an order. We shrug. Recent polls indicate that six in ten Americans believe that the military applies rules of sexual behavior differently for men than for women, and differently according to rank.Defense Secretary William Cohen didn't read the polls. Cohen made the mistake of saying that a decade-old extramarital affair admitted by General Joseph Ralston would not disqualify Ralston from being considered as a candidate for chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.Poor Secretary Cohen! Poor General Ralston! On matters of American sexual behavior, the male heterosexual Pentagon has not shown itself to be very sophisticated of late.A few years ago, for example, the heterosexual Joint Chiefs of Staff was horrified by the notion of admitted homosexuals in our fighting ranks. What would happen to morale? What would happen in the showers?What we are learning now is that it is the heterosexual male (and the officer at that) who is out of control. Last week, Sergeant Paul Fuller was convicted of raping a subordinate, indecent assault and three counts of forcible sodomy.Meanwhile, there is Ms. Flinn. Flinn strikes me as a not-very-honorable human being. And though some feminists have wanted to portray her both as woman warrior and helpless victim, feminists did strike a telling blow against male arrogance by pointing to the unequal ways the military treats sexual misbehavior.Overseas, societies older than our own are appalled by our recent military controversies, and amused. The French, for example, are said to be perplexed by American preoccupation with adultery in the military.Ah, the French.While I will agree with any Frenchman that adultery is not the worst of human sins, I do not find the French on matters of morals to be in any position to teach America. Not after World War II. Not after Petain and the Nazis. Moral cowardice is a worse sin than adultery.Ah, monsieur. But in France the president dies and his mistress comes to the funeral, weeps alongside the president's wife.It is true that we Americans are more preoccupied by sexual sin than people in many other countries of the world. We are, after all, puritanical by heritage. But curiously, our Puritanism has been matched lately by a licentiousness. If we are obsessed by sexual sin, we are also obsessed by sexual pleasure. We brood, we fantasize over the latest Calvin Klein poster; we turn promiscuous and more promiscuous, because we are obsessed by sex as only Puritans can be.What do the pollsters tell us about ourselves? We hear that Americans are growing less harshly judgmental about adultery. What Kelly Flinn did with the married soccer coach is not so very important to us. We are bothered more by the issues of sexual inequality raised by the case. The same with General Ralston.An important question is not getting asked by the pollsters, perhaps because it has no easy answer. The question is this: What is the proper relationship between our public and our private lives?As a homosexual man, I remember feeling cheated by the "don't ask, don't tell" compromise that the Pentagon offered to gays in the military. As a homosexual, but more importantly as a Roman Catholic, I do not regard my private life as simply a private matter. What I do in the bedroom is, finally, related to the kind of man I am in public.The military, traditionally, has understood that there is an interrelationship between public and private life. There is, after all, a great wisdom in the strict rules of military conduct: Persons in positions of public authority should not be privately promiscuous with subordinates.The same rule applies to any number of public positions where authority is crucial to the job performed. A college professor, for example. Don't we believe that a professor should never be engaged in a sexual relationship with a student? Such a relationship would be unfair to the student because it would play on the teacher's power. And it would be unfair to the teacher's position because it would jeopardize academic authority.There is, in other words, a relationship between public and private, but no one wants to think about it. We have grown cynical and democratic in our cynicism. "Boys will be boys" is matched by "girls will be girls."And, after all, the more we learn about our most respected public figures, the more we learn about their adultery. Think of Ben Franklin in Paris. Or Thomas Jefferson's eye for his female slaves. Think of FDR or Dwight Eisenhower. Think of Martin Luther King, Jr. or JFK.We learn more about the private lives of our public heroes and we conclude that the private has nothing to do with the public life. But we are wrong.While every citizen has the right to a private life, those who would assume public authority must govern their private lives with a sense of public responsibility. The teacher or the general or the politician who fails to do this invites cynicism.We Americans are left today with the inclination to shrug. Our prying eye leaves us with mere cynicism. On the one hand, we are fascinated by tales of Paula Jones. In our age of gossip, she is this season's queen of the bedroom. But what does Paula Jones' story tell us about the public man we know as President William Jefferson Clinton?We shrug. We tolerate Bill Clinton, warts and all. We tolerate Kelly Flinn.We end up licentious Puritans. We end up fascinated by sex but unsure of what sex means. We end up with gossip but no wisdom. We are fascinated by the sexual lives of public people. Will Kathie Lee divorce Frank Gifford? -- This is the question of the moment. We stop everything to listen to Paula Jones on "Hard Copy" or "Sixty Minutes." Finally, pollsters tell us that the president's job approval ratings are unaffected by the revelations of Ms. Jones.No wonder that we end up with public figures, men and women of power, who exert no moral authority, have none to exert. David Letterman jokes about the president's sex life and we all laugh before falling asleep.

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