A plethora of philandering politicians

What is it with philandering politicians?

Why do men in power — the ones on pedestals — think they are above us and can get away with cheating on their spouses, particularly when media scrutiny is so intense and peccadilloes are arguably more politically damaging?

There’s a long list of those who thought they could jet off to Argentina, or cruise on the Monkey Business, or check into a hotel under an assumed name or use an escort service and never get caught, never have to come clean.

The names quickly come to mind — South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., Sen. David Vitter, R-La., former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., one-time Democratic presidential hopefuls John Edwards and Gary Hart, former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, ex-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, current New York Gov. David Paterson.

These days, the fallout can run the gamut. It can doom a career — former New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey — or unleash the fury of a special prosecutor, leading to impeachment — then-President Bill Clinton.

This wasn’t always the way it was. There are politicians, presidents even, who did the dalliance dance privately and didn’t pay publicly, John F. Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt included.

No more.

It’s a different world — a public that feeds on the exploits of Paris, Lindsay and Britney documented in the tabloids, glossy magazines and at-your-fingertips Internet has developed an insatiable appetite for scandal.

That makes it all the more inexplicable that these men — and they are almost universally men, as politics remains mostly a man’s game — tempt fate. And, particularly, men with presidential aspirations.

One possible explanation, said Stanley Renshon, a political psychologist at City University of New York: "Narcissism is an occupational hazard for political leaders. You have to have an outsized ambition and an outsized ego to run for office."

Or, perhaps, think you can stray from your marriage without consequence.

"I think too often, and for me in the political process, you begin to think of yourself as master of your own universe and your own set of ethical structures, your own sense of decision-making," McGreevey, who resigned amid a scandal over his admission of a homosexual affair, said Thursday on NBC’s "Today" show.

To be sure, politicians don’t necessarily have different reasons for cheating than non-politicians, and they don’t necessarily cheat more often.

The difference: "They live their lives more in a fishbowl, and that has responsibilities and costs with it," Renshon said, adding that an adulterous politician doesn’t just betray his family’s trust, he also betrays the public’s trust.

Indeed, when politicians get caught, they do so in extraordinary fashion and their actions raise questions about their judgment, character and integrity as a leader.

If they can lie to their loved ones, who is to say they won’t lie to everyone else? If they can’t stay faithful to their marriage vows, who is to say they’ll stay faithful to their oaths of office? And if they have secrets in their private lives, who is to say they don’t have secrets in their public lives?

"It does matter in public perceptions," said Stephen Wayne, a Georgetown University government professor who has studied political psychology. When it comes to the highest positions in politics, he said, "we want to figure out who acts as a model for others."

Presidents, senators, congressmen and governors who have extramarital affairs flunk that test.

On some level, it’s easy to see why they cheat.

Fred Greenstein, a Princeton University professor emeritus of politics, suggested adrenaline as the common denominator, saying, "For some individuals, the excitement of illicit sexual activity might feed the same desire" as "the excitement of politics."

There’s also a clue in the kind of people drawn to politics.

These are men who love themselves deeply, need to be recognized and relish approval. These are men who adore getting praise and who often are surrounded by swarms of sycophants. These are men who, in some cases, need to exercise power and sometimes can become drunk from it. These are men who think the rules don’t apply to them and who think they’re untouchable.

As leaders, these are also the type of men who are likely to break promises, manipulate and cut corners. They probably are big risk-takers. And they’re prone to thinking of themselves first.

Just ask their wives, their mistresses — or the security details that often are privy to indiscretions.

Not a year seems to go by without a Washington sex scandal, and both Democrats and Republicans are guilty.

"I think that he can (stay in office)," State Sen. Tom Davis, a longtime friend of Sanford, said Thursday on CBS’s "The Early Show."

"I think the South Carolina people have a tremendous capacity for forgiveness," he said.

Last year, Edwards, Vitter and Spitzer came before the public to admit they erred.

This month alone, it has been Ensign and Sanford, two Republicans who have mentioned as possible 2012 presidential candidates as the out-of-power GOP seeks to rebound.

Those dreams are probably over, and the double disclosures of infidelity also may have brought short-term embarrassment to a party searching for a new leader.

Said Todd Harris, a Republican operative, "If this was supposed to be our farm team, we’d better start looking for a new farm."


Associated Press writers Nancy Benac, Donna Cassata and Christine Simmons contributed to this report.


Liz Sidoti has covered national politics for The Associated Press since 2003.

3 Responses to "A plethora of philandering politicians"

  1. barak   June 25, 2009 at 12:50 pm

    Because they can. They think they are above the law–after all, they write the laws, don’t most of them? The others either judge from the imperial bench or rule from the imperial presidency.

    They are corrupt, selfish, and irresponsible. The few who are good people, like Henry Waxman, (D CA), are too few to make a difference. We need to clean House and Senate. A couple of Brutus-like and Cassius the conniver types would do for a start, and then we the people could finish the job.

    Dump em all. One 3 year term, no re-election!

  2. woody188   June 25, 2009 at 5:49 pm

    LOL, you mean the RIAA and MPAA owned Waxman that helped create the DMCA and threw fair use out the window?

    That’s some integrity there. Who cares about the public good when there is profit to be made right?

  3. douin   June 25, 2009 at 1:18 pm

    ” Let he who is guiltless throw the first stone ” and they all slunk away. This plethora of adulterers merely proves the hypocrisy of mankind. We are all Innocent until proved guilty appears to be the order of the day. This cheating on spouses has been going on since the beginning of time..for one reason or another..and often with no reason…just the Availability of partners willing to assist. Politicians are merely mortal men and have even less restraints than the average man or woman. That does not make it right, by no means. But it sure holds up to the light and proves the point about the immorality that abounds in this so-called Christian nation. Christlike..I think not !
    No one should wonder why this Nation is in such a Mess…no one appears to be taking care of the business that they were sent to Washington to do. It appears that Politicians are only intent on filling their pockets and removing their pants. We do expect more of them than that. What kind of example do these philanderers show the rest of the people ?