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The Difference Between Democratic And Republican Sex Scandals

But if it doesn't take David Broder to show that wandering eyes and weak wills know no party, it's also worth pausing to consider some differences between the year's major Republican and Democratic sex scandals. On the one hand, comically anachronistic forays into the hidden netherworlds of whoring and cruising; on the other, consensual affairs that begin in the professional sphere of post-sexual revolution America. While the politicians involved may all find themselves in the same amount of trouble down the road--say, at Saint Peter's desk, or at least in divorce court--the specifics of their transgressions say a great deal about their respective political affiliations in the here and now.

From a newsmedia perspective, it's no surprise that the Republican dirtybirds are in more trouble than their Democratic counterparts: The conservatives had records of voting and speechifying that turned their stories into delicious cases of exposed hypocrisy. Unlike the Democratic mayors, they also apparently broke the law--only Craig was arrested, but no one has argued that the services sold by Washington madam Deborah Jeane Palfrey were legal. The culture of newsrooms also explains a lot about the contrasting coverage: Brothels and bathrooms are weird and funny and salacious enough to sell papers; by contrast, it's a pretty good bet that the editors and producers who make national news-coverage decisions all know at least one person who has seen their marriage break up over a banal, if tawdry, office affair.

Of course, the partisan divisions aren't really so cut and dry. Republicans like Rudy Giuliani have seen marriages dissolve over run-of-the-mill workplace cheating, while Democrats like former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey have found themselves in the more spectacular, tabloid-worthy variety of trouble when their 1950s Rock Hudson sham lives are unmasked. (Leave it to Bill Clinton, the old triangulator himself, to split the difference: While his affair with a lowly intern evoked a 1950s spectacle of the boss chasing his secretary around the desk, the fact that it took place amidst the long hours and shared goals of the modern workplace made it all seem sort of contemporary, too.)

Still, as thrilling as it is to gawk at right-wing puritans caught with their pants down, the sex scandals of a less repressed America could someday be far more damaging--the kinds of things that offend the sensibilities of folks well beyond James Dobson's circle. In conducting affairs with government officials and media personalities, the mayors integrated their sex lives into the currents of temporal political power and authority. In Los Angeles, critics are examining an effort by NBC/Universal, the parent company of Villaraigosa's lover's employer, to win approval from the city for a $3 billion development plan. New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine similarly raised eyebrows because he dated the leader of the largest state workers' union (Corzine is single, so it's not properly a sex scandal; and there's no indication that either pol ran afoul of good-government standards). Falling into the sack with someone from your professional or social circle may be remarkably easy nowadays, but it's as complicated as ever for cheaters to keep things quiet. What happens when the educated and powerful union leaders or corporate officials who shag our liberated modern pols start demanding political favors?

Laws notwithstanding, Craig and Vitter engaged in largely victimless crimes. They're easy to mock because they're hypocrites and because they looked for sex with the powerless--strangers in airports, prostitutes on the clock, the sorts of affairs society reads as sordid. But once we start having scandals that involve extramarital others with real power who demand real payoffs from our pols, we may well be wishing they'd take their cheating selves straight back to the bathroom stall.

Michael Currie Schaffer is working on a book about the pet industry.

By Michael Currie Schaffer