Private lives, public obsession?

Fascination with politicians' personal lives has long history

wwashington@thestate.comMay 16, 2010 

File photos of Gov. Mark Sanford and Argentine lover Maria Belen Chapur

  • A quick spin

    Sex scandals are not new to U.S. politics. While a full listing would fill your phone book, some well-known scandals - with special emphasis on recent ones - have included:

    Founding fathers

    Alexander Hamilton, the subsequently venerated secretary of the Treasury and the guy on that $10 bill in your pocket, was blackmailed into admitting an affair, damaging a political career that ended when he was killed in a duel.

    President Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence (and the face on a $2 bill), was accused of fathering children with slave Sally Hemings.

    The 1800s

    President Andrew Jackson's wife was accused of being a bigamist. Old Hickory - a native of either South or North Carolina, depending on which side of that state line you live on - was not amused.

    President James Buchanan, a bachelor, was rumored to be gay. He was provably ineffectual, leaving his successor to fight the Civil War.

    President Grover Cleveland ran for office as his opponents mockingly referenced the support payments that he made for an out-of-wedlock child by jeering, "Ma, Ma, where's my pa?" Once elected, Cleveland's supporters responded, "Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha!"

    The 1900s

    President Franklin D. Roosevelt died at Warm Springs, Ga., attended by his mistress, Lucy Mercer. Not present was first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

    U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina fathered a daughter with a teenage African-American maid. The parentage was acknowledged only after his death.

    President John F. Kennedy was the recipient of a breathless rendition of "Happy Birthday" from Marilyn Monroe and, reportedly, much more in a string of extramarital dalliances.

    U.S. Sen. Gary Hart, D-Colo., torpedoed his own presidential campaign when he was photographed with model Donna Rice - of Irmo, incidentally - on a boat named the Monkey Business.

    U.S. Sen. Robert Packwood, R-Oregon, was forced to resign when vehement denials of wrongdoing - after two dozen-plus women claimed sexual harassment, abuse and assault - were contradicted by his own diaries boasting of his conquests.

    President Bill Clinton denied and then admitted an affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, redefining "is" in the process. Clinton was impeached by the U.S. House, but the U.S. Senate refused to remove him from office.

    Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., admitted to having an affair, while married to his second wife, with the woman who became his third wife, all while investigating Clinton's relationship with Lewinsky. (Gingrich's successor resigned after his extramarital affair was revealed.)

    The 2000s

    U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., admitted to adultery after his name was discovered in the account book of the "D.C. Madam."

    U.S. Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct, in a Minneapolis airport men's room, after having been arrested on a charge of homosexual lewd conduct.

    Seneca native John Edwards, a former U.S. senator from North Carolina and Democratic vice-presidential candidate, denied and then acknowledged having an extramarital affair and child with Rielle Hunter.

    New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer resigned after it was revealed that the Democrat frequented an exclusive escort service-prostitution service.

    U.S. Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., admitted an affair with the wife of a staffer.

    S.C. Gov. Mark Sanford admitted having an extramarital affair with an Argentinean woman while his staff said he was "walking the Appalachian Trail." The Republican subsequently escaped impeachment, settled ethics charges and was divorced by his wife. Then, he went to Key West.

    SOURCES: Wikipedia, others

Gov. Mark Sanford wishes it weren't so, but American fascination with the private lives of public figures is as old as the nation.

What has changed is that, with camera phones, the Internet, cable TV, Facebook and Twitter, Americans don't have to read between the lines of some purloined letter to get their juicy tidbits, political observers say.

Technology has changed politics, and today's public wants to know as much about the personal lives of politicians as they do their favorite Hollywood celebrities, those observers say.

If a politician is out there living life out loud, somebody is out there bogging about it.

Sanford isn't alone in wincing at the attention.

A large chunk of South Carolina's political leadership - a U.S. senator, its governor, its lieutenant governor and its Senate president pro tempore - is unmarried, and there have been rumors and innuendoes about the personal lives of each. And others, too.

Whatever line that once encircled a politician's private life has long been blurred - often by the politician who either pontificates about family values or uses warm, fuzzy family pictures to present a solid, trustworthy family image.

"The line's been blown up," said Jeri Cabot, an assistant professor of media, government and politics at the College of Charleston.

When he took a three-day vacation to the Florida Keys to meet his Argentinian lover, Maria Belen Chapur, Sanford may have thought he was being discreet.

But, last week, the two-term Republican found himself again answering questions about his erstwhile soul mate.

Sanford went to the Keys to spend time with Chapur and was seen by someone who e-mailed the Web site Gawker, which was picked up by a mainstream newspaper and followed up by other mainstream media.

The now-divorced Sanford, who escorted South Carolina through an odd Summer of Love last year, admitting to an extramarital affair with Chapur and openly pining for her, said he is trying to restart something with his Argentine lover.

He said he does not want a cheering section.

"This obsession with one's personal life at some point has got to end," Sanford said.

'YOU ARE ASKING VOTERS TO TRUST YOU'

That might be just what American founding father Thomas Jefferson said when rumors popped up about him and female slaves in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

In the decades since, however, the public's interest has not waned. In fact it may have increased because politics and technology both have changed.

Candidates once practiced retail campaigning, trying to sell voters on voting for them in face-to-face conversation. They also truly debated and, often, relied on political machines, with well-known - if not always altruistic - values.

Today, politicians rely on 30-second TV ads and sound bites.

At the end of the modern political process, voters know whether a candidate is photogenic and clever, or at least capable of applying makeup and memorizing a timely three-to-five-word put-down. ("Where's the beef?" Or "There you go again." Or "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.")

But voters may know little else. So they look for information - even gossip - to fill in the rest of the picture.

The College of Charleston's Cabot said she is not among those who think politicians can run for public office and then shield themselves from scrutiny and interest.

"You are asking voters to trust you on all sorts of levels," she said.

Susan McManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida, said the public appetite for personal information about politicians is strong.

"Our politics have become tabloid-like, just like with celebrities," McManus said. "Technology has changed everything. People want to know everything."

In that environment, mainstream media and politicians are both guaranteed to lose.

Mainstream media faces a choice - and a loud chorus of critics no matter the decision - between covering personal details or ignoring them.

Politicians must grapple with the reality that their public positions may make seemingly ordinary personal behavior - like, say, a newly single, 50-year-old man seeing a woman he cares about - newsworthy.

Being unmarried seems to add to the curiosity and to the rumors, which sometimes endure no matter what.

In Florida, for example, rumors about Republican Gov. Charlie Crist's sexuality have persisted for years - despite the fact that he has been married, divorced and married again.

"Even after his marriage, people still speculated about his sexuality," said South Florida's McManus. "You just can't win."

McManus said single, male political figures are not alone in wrestling with rumors about their personal behavior and preferences.

"It may be worse for women," she said. "Look at what's happening with (Supreme Court nominee) Elena Kagan and speculation about her sexuality."

'ARE THERE LIES IN OTHER AREAS?'

Governors are almost always married, reducing interest in their personal lives.

Not so Sanford.

He is now one of only three governors in the country who is single. A fourth governor, Jim Gibbons of Nevada, awaits a judge's ruling on his divorce agreement.

Charleston's Cabot said Sanford should get used to interest in his personal life, given last year's scandal. In that context, interest in who he was with in Florida was understandable, she said.

"The question of who it was and was it her, we can't help ourselves," Cabot said. "It's part of a soap opera. It's part of an ongoing story. We can't resist."

Beyond mere curiosity, Cabot said there is a broader reason for interest in a politician's personal life, particularly as it relates to a figure who has been less than honest and still is in a position to influence public policy.

"We're all human," she said. "We cannot help but wonder when we find a lie in one dimension of your life, are there lies in other areas?"

Reach senior writer Wayne Washington at (803) 771-8385.

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