Forty years ago, presidential candidate Jimmy Carter, a born-again Baptist, admitted in a notorious interview with Playboy magazine, “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.” In my heart were the operative words, though they were largely lost in the kerfuffle that followed. Carter later claimed the comment sent his campaign into a temporary tailspin, dropping fifteen points in the polls. One of the most religiously devout candidates in modern times, a true choir boy, Carter had confessed to something remarkable in the political environment of his day: being human. Later, he went one step further. In an interview with writer Norman Mailer, Carter said, “’I don’t care if people say ‘fuck.’”
Flash forward. Republican nominee Donald Trump, who enjoys the support of many evangelicals, conservatives, and self-proclaimed family value advocates—is caught on tape not just lusting in his heart, but using the crudest of terms to describe his failed efforts to bed a married woman: “I moved on her like a bitch, but I couldn’t get there.” He then is heard boasting of his wider sexploits and irresistible star-charisma. “Grab them by the pussy,” he says, apparently too self-absorbed to even bother with seduction. “You can do anything.” All the while, his newlywed wife Melania (make that his third wife) was at home with child.
The revulsion expressed by many at Trump’s remarks had nothing to do with puritanism or sexual repression, and everything to do with their predatory nature, the disregard for his wife, and the boastfulness, mixed with libido, that produced such toxic vanity. The two episodes, Carter’s contretemps and Trump’s trumpeting of his sexual prowess, came from entirely different places, and define not only the gulf between these two candidates but the chasm that divides America in its bicentennial year and the America of today.
At the time of the Playboy interview, Carter was pressed to demonstrate that he was not so morally rigid and out of touch with the prevailing sexual and social mores, that he could not see beyond his Sunday best to the world as it was. He was baited in the interview to show that, if elected, he would not be a priggish schoolmarm wagging a moral finger in the face of a nation that had just embraced the Sexual Revolution. His challenge: to show that he was not the sanctimonious Bible-thumping Southerner many feared. He more than ably made the case, to his lasting chagrin.
It is difficult to recall the moral state of play in 1976, but suffice to note that birth control for all U.S. citizens had been legalized by the Supreme Court a scant four years earlier (Baird v. Eisenstadt). Playboy then was tamer than some of today’s prestige cable dramas. The institution of marriage was the model for a full 63 percent of adult Americans. Back then, presidential candidates did not reference their sex lives and no one dared ask.
Today slightly more than half of all American adults are not married. The internet features sexual videos of a kind that would have been deemed obscene in 1976. And it is difficult to turn on TV these days without hearing that “when the moment is right” Cialis is there for you, or what to do in the event of an erection lasting more than four hours. And, no matter how much one may long for Bill Clinton, his Oval Office antics introduced the nation to a cringe-worthy level of presidential discourse.
We have indeed come a long way—but still not so far as to fully prepare ourselves for a Donald Trump. The problem is that Trump is neither the modern man, a product of sexual liberation, nor a throwback to the time before feminism—the days when “no” meant, to too many men, “I know you want it.” His sexual opportunism belongs to a parody of some earlier period, or simply a pathology all his own. So grotesque a figure does he cut that many a locker room would have shunned him, despite his invocation of that as a safe haven where all is forgiven.
But even the locker room—with its colorful language, private parts on full display and towel snapping—had its standards. There was no time when a man could boast to a room full of casual mates of hitting on a married woman while his own new wife was pregnant. Even in my day, 50 years ago, that would have been seen as going too far.
The long-ago admission by Carter that he lusted in his heart can now be seen for what it was—not just that he felt the lure of temptation, but that he did not have to be ashamed of such impulses. It told us we were dealing with someone who was introspective, honest, and humble. In retrospect, the gaffe leant a meaningful insight into the candidate’s character, and in its strange way, was ennobling. His words were even brave: They were meant for the public’s ears.
Trump’s comments, on the other hand, contradict his very humanity. They were cravenly and intended only for the like-minded group of satyrs, namely Access Hollywood host Billy Bush and crew, gathered on the bus. The moment Trump stepped off the bus to greet actress Arianne Zucker he put on his charming face, a study in deceit and hypocrisy. Unlike Carter’s words, Trump’s suggest a man incapable of looking inward, of feeling shame, humility, or love. That such a purposefully divisive figure could represent the best hopes of tens of millions of Americans, even as he revolts and alienates tens of millions of others, speaks to the yawning chasm that divides the nation politically and culturally. What comes to mind is the question that once brought down another demagogue, Joe McCarthy, more than 60 years ago: “Have you no sense of decency, sir?”