Early in John Adams’ long retirement, he sat down to write his memoirs, which never got far, but did nail down this point. “No Virgin or Matron ever had cause to blush at the sight of me, or to regret her Acquaintance with me,” he wrote. Following in Adams’ footsteps, in this if in no other way, Dan Quayle has announced that he has never strayed from his marriage vows. Will other Republican candidates take the pledge, just as they traditionally promise, while stumping in New Hampshire, that they will not raise taxes?
While this is an understandable reaction to recent events, it is the wrong way to go. There is such a thing as privacy, and there is certainly such a thing as human weakness. Respect for the first, and acknowledgment of the second, should impose a certain restraint on our testimonials, as well as our curiosity. Dan Quayle has been married a long time, it would seem happily; he and his wife have raised children, it would seem reasonably well. I don’t care if he (or she) ever slept with someone else. I don’t care about the total fidelity of Steve Forbes or John Ashcroft-or Bill Clinton. I certainly don’t care who David Brock mates with.
During World War II, Dwight Eisenhower told George Marshall that he was in love with his driver, Kay Summersby, who was not his wife, and that he would therefore resign. Marshall told him to smite the Hun. It speaks well for Ike’s heart that he made the offer, and better for Marshall’s head that he rejected it. If the religious right had existed then, would they have joined Erwin Rommel in hoping for a different outcome?
A certain kind of friable litmus test is the sign of a declining movement. Is this to be the fate of conservatism, even as quotas mandating two and two-thirds gay Chicanas on every steering committee were the death knell of liberalism? To descend to practicalities for a moment, it is absurd to engage in unilateral rhetorical disarmament. Democrats and liberals will never follow such a standard. Does that mean that only Republicans will accept destruction for their sins? Why should the G.O.P. encourage people like Frank Rich, who celebrates the idle rich horndogs of the entertainment industry, to write sniggering columns about their missteps? There is such a thing as the decent hypocrite-the sinner who keeps his sins within bounds, and who is at least ashamed of them, if only for pragmatic reasons. Since we will never be a camp of saints, we should defend the decent hypocrite as an acceptable ally, not drive him out of existence.
A few such have occupied the White House. Warren Harding caused pain in his marriage, as the saying goes, though far less than the character-assassinating biographies, which appeared when he was dead and defenseless, alleged. Franklin Roosevelt fooled around with Princess Margaret of Norway and with the aptly named Missy LeHand, but his main adulterous flame was Lucy Mercer, with whom he first hooked up no later than 1918, and who visited him during his last illness at Warm Springs, Ga., in 1945, which suggests a certain object constancy, if not to Eleanor.
But there is a different personality type that is not interested in love, or even in sex. Don Juan is the archetype, though Mozart gave him music he did not deserve. Such men (they are usually men) are aroused by a scenario or a situation. Power and risk are often elements of it, sometimes shame and exposure. But in every case it is the drama itself, not the actors in it, which turns them on.
This frame of mind is a holdover from the first stirrings of puberty, a recapitulation of overheated nighttime conversations at summer camp. The raging hormones then seem so forbidden that their effects must be made ritualized and compulsory. “S-s-so you could grab her.” “Th-th-then you could touch her.” “Th-th-then she would touch you.” “N-n-no, then you would make her touch you …” And on and on, thrilling and repetitive as loon cries, into the night. Most of us grow up and move on, discovering romance, then devotion. Don Juan stays put.
There have been many Don Juan rulers in history. Catherine the Great had her parade of lovers, though not, apparently, the notorious final one. Roman legionnaires were permitted to sing obscene ditties about Julius Caesar’s couplings, gay and straight, during triumphal processions. It is noteworthy, however, that most of them have presided over regimes different from ours. Caesar wanted to overthrow the Roman republic. We, who would like to keep ours, are less comfortable with goats at the head of it.
John Kennedy, it seems, was such a personality-restless, indifferent, insatiable. That was his private life, says the American Civil Liberties Union. That was his karma, says the New Age. That’s my boy, said Richard Cardinal Cushing. But was his behavior, like that of the decent hypocrite, a matter of unconcern? In World War II, one of Kennedy’s alleged girlfriends was a Nazi spy. When he was President, one of his alleged girlfriends was also the moll of a mobster whom his brother, the Attorney General, was investigating. Compulsiveness, in his case, was not only unseemly, but unsafe.
And so, by stages, we come to our President. The social context of the Clinton White House is admittedly different than that of Camelot. As celebrities crave more exposure and the media demands more access, the margin for decent hypocrisy shrinks accordingly. Has our President even tried to stay within it? His libido, rather, obtrudes itself on us, even as his arms and hands obtrude on his employees.
Of course it is sordid, the whole by-now-familiar cycle: the first exposure, by victim or bystander; then the counterattack, which can say only that this one wanted a book deal, and that one slept with her drama teacher, and that one there was once arrested.
We are not here by accident, however, or because Ken Starr or the religious right put us here. We are here because one man cannot leave this place, and he happens to be the President of the United States. Enemies throw mud at him, but he does their work by rolling in it. It’s going to be a long three years.