The Story the past few days in Los Angeles has been the revelation that our mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, has been carrying on an affair out of wedlock with a local TV reporter, Mirthala Salinas. California being a state in which being a marital miscreant is not only not a barrier to high elected office, but practically a necessary credential (ie., Reagan, Unruh, Feinstein, Schwarzenegger, and the last two mayors of San Francisco, just to name a few), it doesn’t appear likely that this will hinder Villaraigosa’s long-term political ambitions.
But a more telling question is whether “sex scandals” have ever been as crippling to a politician as has been assumed. We needn’t look at recent examples involving Gov. Schwarzenegger and President Clinton to indicate the public’s tolerance for a potential leader’s betrayal of his marital vows; even in the 19th Century, the public was willing to set aside rumor and conjecture in electing men to the highest office. Thomas Jefferson’s alleged relationship with a slave, Sally Hemings, was not something dug up by recent scholars: it was first aired publicly in 1802, and although Jefferson never publicly denied the charge, he easily won reelection two years later. Andrew Jackson won two terms as President, even though he was involved in a bigamous relationship with his wife, a fact the voters were well aware of (as well as the fact that he had killed a man in a dual over that fact) when he ran for office. Most famously, Grover Cleveland twice won election to the Presidency after it had become known that he had fathered a child out of wedlock.
For a time, it was thought that divorce would prove to be debilitating to a politician’s career, after Adlai Stevenson and Nelson Rockefeller fell short in their bids to be President. But considering that Stevenson’s best region in his two defeats to Eisenhower was the Bible Belt, and that Rockefeller’s defeats in 1964 and 1968 had more to do with his being unwilling (and unable) to court his party’s base on a host of other issues, that factor was overstated even then. It is safe to say that Ronald Reagan’s divorce and subsequent remarriage clearly didn’t upset his party’s base, and even as the Rove Machine was throwing every bit of garbage at John Kerry last time, the fact that he had been divorced did not play a perceptible role in the last election.
Nor is there any evidence to suggest, as the LA Times editorial page did last week, that Democrats tend to be judged more harshly by the voters than Republicans. Besides Bill Clinton, who won terms as President in spite of almost continuous frenzied speculation concerning whom he was sleeping with, and whose approval ratings went up every time a new allegation was made, other Democrats, including Barney Franks and the late Gerry Studds, have also been able to weather the media storm even when the allegations concern homosexuality. By itself, sexual indiscretions by male politicians have never been anything but background noise, important only to those people who didn’t like the politician in the first place.
Even the examples the Times raised only prove the rule. Gary Hart’s popularity went through the roof after it was revealed that a reporter tailed him while investigating his private life; had he stayed in the race, he would probably have been the Democratic nominee in 1988. Henry Cisneros survived the initial revelation of his affair with a staffer in 1989, and was strong enough politically to get confirmed as Clinton’s first Secretary of H.U.D.. His troubles happened not because of an affair, but because he lied to FBI agents years later about the amount of hush money he had paid the former mistress. And Gary Condit’s troubles stemmed not from the fact that he had an affair with Chandra Levy, but from the fact that he many had suspected him of being her killer.
More to the point, it can well be argued that far from hurting political careers, the perception that a male politician is getting some on the side may well be beneficial, particularly for liberal Democrats, as long as the proper pieties are spoken and the acts of contrition seem genuine. Nothing reinforces the perception of the Alpha Male more than the belief that the dude in question is a Sex Machine, and when a political leader whose public principles include compassion for the underclass and support for women’s rights is also perceived as being a ruthless Don Juan to the ladies, any undercurrents that he might not be “man” enough for the job dissipate. And should the media see fit to expose that aspect of his character, the public will invariably rally around the politician, defending his right to privacy, while subconsciously cheering him on. For a liberal Democrat, it's a no-lose situation, a fact that the Mayor probably knew when he preemptively announced his adulterous relationship this week.
When Marilyn Monroe sang “Happy Birthday” to President Kennedy at a 1962 fundraiser, there probably wasn’t a person in the room who didn’t have some idea that the two were an item, and the later revelations about JFK’s betrayal of his marital vows do not seem to have appreciably damaged his public standing, where he remains one of our most popular Presidents in history. If Villaraigosa goes down in flames, it won’t be because he’s been sleeping with beautiful TV reporters, but because some other scandal gets him first.