The media are supposed to draw a line between news and entertainment. There is an exception: the sex scandal. As comedian Bill Maher says, “The only politics we understand is scandal, and the only scandal we understand is sex.”
A sex scandal is easy to understand — great for lazy reporters and their readers. “Sex is of endless fascination to most people,” says Bill Eadie of the San Diego State University School of Journalism and Media Studies.
Says K. Tim Wulfemeyer, also of the San Diego State journalism school, “Land deals, laundering money, stock manipulations, bid rigging, witness tampering, etc., are quite a bit different and not nearly as sexy.”
Example: everybody understood the fun and games of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. But few cared about Bill and Hillary’s recondite Arkansas land deals.
There have been sex scandals throughout recorded history. (Pompeii had its brothels, orgies, and sexually explicit art all over town.) In the United States, Watergate, although not a sex scandal, upped the sex obsession. “The Watergate investigation cemented the value of ‘investigative reporting,’” says Wulfemeyer. “Ratings/circulations increased, careers were made, enrollment in journalism schools increased dramatically. Behaviors/activities that had been overlooked, ignored, or winked at in the past were now the fodder for mainstream and tabloid journalism.” The proliferation of cable TV channels and celebrity/gossip media propelled the dirt digging.
Before Watergate, “There was a bubble around authority that does not exist now,” says Dean Nelson, director of the journalism program at Point Loma Nazarene University. These days, people do not believe their leaders are “more moral or virtuous than the rest of us.”
Examples: Jack Kennedy entertained prostitutes in the White House. He also deflowered at least one virgin on a White House bed and allegedly dallied with Marilyn Monroe, among many other ladies. Lyndon Johnson wanted to outdo his predecessor; he bedded down secretaries who would be awarded with promotions. The press looked the other way.
But before Watergate, the press wasn’t always asleep. Consider our Founding Fathers. Alexander Hamilton, chief of staff to General George Washington and later the creator of the nation’s financial system, was done in by a sexual affair. He was married but had a long-running affair with a young lady. Her husband was a con man who extorted $1000 from Hamilton. Initially, the public was unaware, but Thomas Jefferson, who hated Hamilton, spread rumors about the affair. The press got the word, and Hamilton’s career was finished.
Jefferson appears to have been a hypocrite. As early as 1802, a Richmond, Virginia newspaper accused Jefferson of fathering a son out of wedlock with a young African-American slave, Sally Hemings. The same muckraker who exposed Hamilton would later shovel the dirt on the Jefferson/Hemings affair. And Jefferson reputedly had other alliances.
But of the Founding Fathers, the most notorious womanizer of all escaped scandal. His name: Benjamin Franklin. His aphorisms touted Puritan virtues such as chastity. His personal life was something else. He fathered an illegitimate child and lived with a woman to whom he was not married.
The United States was seeking France’s aid in the Revolutionary War. Franklin was dispatched to France to charm and sleep with the right women. He did — with such success that Louis XVI, envious of the American parvenu’s conquests, gave one lady a chamber pot with Franklin’s likeness at the bottom. Nonetheless, France joined our side in the war.
Other American presidents have been in the media spotlight. James Buchanan was said to be gay, Grover Cleveland fathered a child out of wedlock, and Warren Harding carried on more than one affair, and his indignant wife is rumored to have poisoned him.
But from the 1930s through the 1960s, the press wore blinders — a blessing to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Johnson. After Watergate, the lid was off.
Gary Hart blew his chances for the presidency. Senator Bob Packwood seemed to skate past accusations that he abused women for sexual gratification, but then his diary showed him to be a chauvinist pig of the worst kind. He was forced to resign. Wilbur Mills, head of the House Ways and Means Committee, was infatuated with stripper Fanne Fox and was an alcoholic to boot. He resigned. In Congress, politicians were taking on young pages, both male and female. John Edwards, once a vice presidential candidate, ended his career by impregnating a woman while his wife was dying of cancer.
Former Oregon governor Neil Goldschmidt admitted to having repeated sex with a 14-year-old girl. His political career ended, but he didn’t go to the slammer because the statute of limitations had run out. Several political careers ended in male restrooms. Hookers did in New York governor Eliot Spitzer, and displaying photos of his genitals online forced Representative Anthony Weiner to leave Congress.
But some escaped contumely. Former representative Barney Frank had a highly publicized relationship with a male prostitute but went forward as a respected member of the House.
Says Nelson, “We give some people more of a pass than others for at least two reasons. One is that we simply like certain people more than others, and two is that sometimes we see ourselves in other people’s dramas.”
Richard Nixon was disliked in Washington. Bob Filner was not liked in San Diego or Congress.
“The impact of scandals has a great deal to do with media persistence, the scope of and type of the alleged misbehavior, competing scandals, and other big newsworthy events,” says Wulfemeyer.
Some scandals never take root because nobody would believe them. According to the publication Zimbio, playmate Paula Parkinson boasted of her flings with prominent politicians. “Washington is basically a very horny city,” she declared.
Filner discovered that mentality didn’t transfer well to San Diego.