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How would have voters of the day reacted to the disclosure that Franklin Roosevelt's marriage had been in name only for many years and that he had intimate relationships with at least two women including Lucy Mercer with whom he carried on a decades long love affair?
What would have been the public's view of Gen. Dwight Eisenhower had it known that Gen. George C. Marshall, his boss as Army chief of staff, had summoned him to Washington during World War II to order him to break off any relationship with Kay Summersby, Eisenhower's British chauffer and nearly constant companion overseas. Whether rumors of an affair were true or not, Marshall reasoned that even a hint of infidelity would severely damage home front morale among women left behind.
Or how would those in love with America's beautiful couple, Jack and Jackie Kennedy, have responded to revelations that their marriage was in many ways a sham and that his unfaithfulness was legendary among his closest friends. Even those who might forgive him for Marilyn Monroe would have had a hard time swallowing the fact the handsome, young president was sleeping with a Mafia party girl, Judith Campbell, who carried messages between him and mobster Sam Giancana.
The chances are excellent that all three presidents might not have reached the office had their personal lives been put on the kind of display that every politician today faces in the 24-hour media glare. Of course all these things took place in a less worldly America, at a time when a divorce could knock out a potential candidate. Nelson Rockefeller never could get over that hurdle. But most particularly they occurred when journalists had rules about reporting on sexual peccadilloes in family newspapers. Simply stated the rule of thumb was if the politician's conduct in office wasn't affected, don't print it.
But journalists quit pulling their punches and Americans became aware they weren't electing saints but human beings with innate frailties. The tolerance of voters for personal shenanigans has followed changing public mores and ultimately has become so forgiving that a chief executive forced to admit that he had sex with an intern in the Oval Office beats removal from office and retains to this day enormous popularity.
So the current field of presidential candidates has its share of those whose private lives probably would have disqualified them in the first six decades of the last century. The front-runner for the Republican nomination, Rudolph Giuliani, has had a highly visible stormy relationship not only with one ex wife but also with his children. The marital history of Bill and Hillary Clinton has been recorded ad nauseam, making the latest offerings in this vein almost trite. That includes a new book by Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein, that is 20 years too late. The title should have been "Who Cares?"
At least that was the initial reaction to Bernstein's book and another written by two reporters who reveal the amazing fact that Sen. Clinton has been willing to overlook her husband's philandering to further her own ambitions. Much as Jack and Jackie Kennedy decided against dissolving their marriage, both Clintons seem to understand they will do better together than separately. The first reaction to these two — and you can bet there will be more — books should make their publishers twitch a bit about the oversized — 250,000 copies for Bernstein — printings. It was a big yawn.
One can, as they say, argue it flat or argue it round as to whether this new, worldly acceptance of personal indiscretions among candidates and office holders is bad or good. If the job performance is otherwise popular, is it not better to let some semblance of privacy remain and forgive those who might violate religious standards of behavior as all humans eventually do? Or is it more profitable for society to hold that once elected its servants' personal lives are no longer their own and demand levels of moral hygiene far above what we hold for ourselves no matter how excellently they have served?
Who knows? At the moment, Lyndon Johnson's observation about the worst thing that could happen to a male politician is to be caught in bed with a dead woman or a live man seems no longer to apply, certainly not the last part. To some extent, I don't think that is too bad. If history is any judge, the needle on the public's moral compass can be expected to swing back — but not in time for the next election.