August 2004

Where politics is concerned, our interest is skin deep

By Gail Binkly

I have an uncle who recently explained why he will vote for George Bush in November. Not because he likes Bush, not because he dislikes John Kerry, but because of President Clinton. “Clinton lied about having sex with that girl,” he proclaimed.

He’s far from alone in his reasoning. If letters to the editor in local and regional papers are any indication, many voters harbor an abiding bitterness over Clinton’s sophomoric affair with Monica Lewinsky – a bitterness they will carry to the ballot box.

The magnitude of the anger over Clinton’s tawdry behavior used to perplex me. Sure, it was a cheesy thing to do, sure it reflected badly on Clinton’s attitude toward women and marriage, and yes, he lied to cover it up. But was all of this really, in the great scheme of things, so important? Did it have anything to do with Clinton’s presidency – how he handled the economy, foreign affairs, social issues? Was this the first time a president had ever lied to the American public? It wasn’t until the Abu Ghraib scandal broke in April that I finally understood why people still care so deeply about Clinton and Lewinsky.

It’s because sex scandals are the only sort we Americans really care about.

Few voters grasped the intricacies of the Whitewater allegations involving Slick Willy. Back in the ’70s, few were outraged over Watergate - the covert spying, the secret slush fund, Nixon’s abuses of power. For most citizens, Iran-contra and the astonishing amalgamation of lies, usurpation of power and dubious ethics it represented is only a vague memory – look at the reverence accorded the late President Reagan, who was in charge during that conspiracy. But let sex get in the picture and suddenly people are riveted. No one, it seems, will ever forget a detail of Clinton’s assignations with Lewinsky. (“In the Oval Office!” people cry, as if that were the final straw, tantamount to doing the deed in the Pope’s bed.)

A sex scandal can sink a politician faster than anything else – and it isn’t always Democrats who suffer from this Puritanical outrage. Consider Republican Jack Ryan, a recent candidate for Senate in Illinois - until papers were unsealed in an old custody case involving his ex-wife, the voluptuous actress Jeri Ryan.

During their marriage, she alleged in court documents, Jack hauled her to sex clubs several times and tried to persuade her to have intercourse with him in front of other people. She declined in horror and that apparently was the end of the matter – until the papers were unearthed.

Ryan’s tastes were kinky, but, as he pointed out, ultimately he was just seeking to have relations with his own wife. Yet the lurid news of his unsavory appetites ruined his candidacy, and he was forced to withdraw by GOP bosses. Some blame our sexual obsession on our nation’s roots in strict Christian theology, but that theory doesn’t hold water.

Our religious forebears were sternly moral, but they were concerned about more than sexual ethics. Just read Laura Ingalls Wilder for accounts of how seriously they took the Bible’s strictures against working on the Sabbath or using the Lord’s name in vain.

We’ve thrown out those proscriptions – when was the last time you a politician was lambasted for working on Sunday, or a Hollywood film boycotted for using “God” as a swear word? And is anyone in our greedy, materialistic society ever criticized for being too covetous?

Yet, while Americans ignore these rules straight out of the Ten Commandments, they froth at the mouth over homosexuality, morning-after pills, and teenage birth control.

The Abu Ghraib scandal was a sad reflection of our skewed sense of sin. The photos of grinning, leering GIs posing with naked Muslim prisoners stunned and disgusted the nation – justifiably so - and were shown on television for weeks. But darker allegations of beatings, outright torture and unexplained deaths have generated mostly yawns. When the Denver Post wrote about allegations that an Iraqi general was suffocated by American interrogators, that GIs forced two prisoners to jump off a bridge, drowning one, the reaction was muted.

Why? Stripping prisoners and playing sexually humiliating games with them is apparently, in our minds, a far worse sin than actually killing them. It’s peculiar that, as pervasive as sex is in our society, we remain so fascinated by it. Certainly this demonstrates an adolescent simplicity in our character, an unwillingness to make the mental effort to grasp any issues deeper or more complex than who’s having sex with whom.

It isn’t wrong to care about sexual morality. But when it comes to the national agenda, issues such as war, health care, Middle East relations, Social Security, jobs and national security should be driving our gold-plated SUV. Sex belongs in the back seat.

Gail Binkly is editor of the Free Press.