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What Do Sex Scandals Tell Us About America’s Political Maturity?

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The German newsweekly Die Zeit offers an interesting discussion in its current issue about America’s obsession with political sex. In the last few weeks we have seen two rather stark examples, and in both cases the publication which stood front-and-center as the panderer of titillation was the newspaper of record, The New York Times. The first case related to John McCain and vague suggestions that he was romantically linked to a lobbyist. The Times protested that it raised the issue only to make a point about McCain’s questionable relations with lobbyists, that he was something less of a “Mr. Clean” than he claimed. But nobody was buying that. And in the end if a reputation was damaged by the disclosures, it was The New York Times and not John McCain.

The Times scored better on the second round, however, by taking the lead in coverage of the involvement of New York governor Eliot Spitzer in a prostitution ring. It dominated the story. But in the case of Spitzer, the ethical standards of the Times sank even lower. Its control of the story turned on a series of leaks from the investigation which pointed to an ethics-challenged prosecution. Yet the Times not only failed to point to the issues that were raised by this process, it actually solicited an op-ed piece with a pre-emptive defense of its source, and then ran a completely shameless fluff-piece portraying the prosecutors involved as persons of unquestioned integrity. The Times’s conduct in doing all of this was not the conduct of a boulevard newspaper, but it showed more than a bit of the exploitative angling – using the seedy underside of stories, fanning them for a circulation boost. Is it hypocritical for a paper to embrace a searing moral tone while it is trashing objective ethical standards? That is the dilemma in which the Times finds itself.

Die Zeit asks the basic questions that should be asked and probed. Of course, as they observe, the European audience enjoys a nice sex scandal every bit as much as the Americans—and indeed, it’s the English-language market that goes for them the best. We saw that with the Spitzer scandal, when it made the headlines of the London tabloids—and quality press—by day two. On the continent, the Spitzer story had to struggle for coverage, and then it got a different spin. As it played in the French major papers, for instance, it was something on the line of: New York governor has a thing for high-priced hookers, and the American public becomes hysterical. The emphasis fell on the second part. What is it about these crazy, Puritanical ‘ricains?

The major difference between the Europeans and the Americans lies in the leap from boulevard newspapers and late-night comics to the arena of politics proper. In Europe, sex scandals of the Spitzer and McCain genre almost never have political consequences.

Die Zeit does a good job drawing the balance (my translations):

By comparison, let’s consider the old continent. There the French president is perfectly entitled to his mistress, the German chancellor could be married four times without people even asking questions, and when it comes to the British Royals—where would we even begin? The Britons get worked up about a politician’s affair when the call girl in question turns out to be a spy for the KGB, not otherwise. And Germany is still more tolerant. Klaus Wowereit, the mayor of Berlin, came out of the closet, and his colleague in Hamburg, Ole von Beust did the same; Horst Seehofers mistress and their child are a matter of public record, Christian Wulff’s divorce, Joschka Fischer’s fifth wife—all of that produces no more than a shrug of the shoulders as it is absorbed by the public.

Does all of this point to a sharp difference between the Americans and the Europeans when it comes to the sex lives of their politicians? Assuredly it does. In some respect, Americans continue to be the descendants of the Puritans, with a strong sense of hypocrisy when it comes to sexual conduct. Die Zeit sees the modern American Puritanism in the hit comedy, Sex in the City–it’s what the columnist-protagonist of that series calls the “ick-factor.”

There is a correlation between the level of Puritanism and the “ick-factor.” The more puritanical a society, the less tolerant it is towards gay partnerships, divorces and unmarried people living together—indeed, of anything which departs from the old moral concepts; indeed, sexual impulses erupt and strike out on their own, into the secretive. When a society is more tolerant, then these types of scandals begin to disappear from the headlines. American will not free itself of the “ick-factor” until Americans are able to accept the fact that a president is in his fourth marriage and a governor lives with his friend.

So does the public eruption over the Spitzer, McCain and similar stories reflect a lack of political and social maturity on the part of Americans? From the European perspective, the answer to that question is obvious.

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