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Partisan Affair

Why Democratic and Republican Sex Scandals Are So Different

Forget Iraq, terrorism, and the rickety credit market. This is turning out to be the best year in a while for political sex scandals--certainly the best since 9/11 supposedly focused our leaders on less tawdry pursuits. It's enough to make Gary Condit's head spin: Only eight months old, 2007 has already featured a Washington madam, a cruising senator, a cuckolded campaign manager, and a home-wrecking TV reporter. And while other sorts of recent governmental improprieties have had a decidedly Republican cast, booty calls appear relatively bipartisan. The soiled bedsheets of prominent Democrats like Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and his San Francisco counterpart Gavin Newsom are hanging in public view right alongside those of Republican Senators David Vitter and Larry Craig.

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.

The Republican version of the 2007 sex scandal, in fact, looks a lot like pretty much everyone's version of the 1957 sex scandal. In Craig's case, that means the world of the closet. Never mind that within a couple miles of Craig's Washington, D.C. offices there are dozens of places to non-illegally seek out casual sex; Craig followed the pre-Stonewall logic of the modern right wing straight into the bathroom, with all its attendant physical discomforts, and legal dangers. Vitter, too, played the part of a horny Rip Van Winkle. And while no mere sexual revolution can be expected to render obsolete the world's oldest profession, four decades of social upheaval have surely made it easier for a handsome young Louisianan to find a non-illegal extramarital bedmate (preferably one who doesn't keep phone logs). But both Craig and Vitter, officially disapproving of the very social changes that would have eased their stepping out, sinned the old fashioned way. They're now paying the price: Craig said he planned to resign, and Vitter is a punchline.

By contrast, the Democratic version of the 2007 sex scandal mirrors the plot of a bad Lifetime special. In San Francisco, Newsom apologized last winter after his close friend Alex Tourk quit as campaign manager upon learning that Newsom had a 2005 fling with Tourk's wife, a mayoral aide. The affair had been a consensual romp between more or less equals, born amidst Newsom's divorce and the hothouse environment of big-city politics. Likewise, Villaraigosa was led astray in the public world of work rather than in the seedy realms where secret sex used to take place. In his case, the other woman was someone who covered his administration for a local TV station. Like Newsom's, the affair wasn't illegal, even if the publicity around it makes the liberal mayor--who had even appended his wife's maiden name onto his own when they wed in 1987--look remarkably tacky. Both men's careers are likely to survive, even if they're likely to be permanently saddled with reputations as guys who schtup friends' wives or ditch their longtime partners.

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.

By Michael Currie Schaffer