In the last couple of weeks we’ve been confronted with the spectacle of four public men being victimized, in one way or another, by their own sexual appetites. First, in the space of a week we saw Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Arnold Schwarzenegger getting in trouble for taking sexual liberties with the domestic help. In the last week we’ve seen John Edwards being indicted and Anthony Weiner being disgraced for using the instruments of public office (campaign funds and congressional offices) to conceal juvenile displays of sexuality.
It’s tempting to say that all four of these guys revealed themselves to be men of “bad character” unworthy of the public offices they either occupied or aspired to occupy. It’s a little misleading, however, to lump them all together as moral specimens or draw the same political lesson from their respective rise and fall as political figures.
Strauss-Kahn and Schwarzenegger are indeed men of bad character (although obviously not equally bad character). Their long and well-documented histories as sexual predators attest to that. They got away with mistreating women for as long as they did by exploiting the privileges of their social position, Strauss-Kahn as a member of the Parisian cultural elite and Schwarzenegger as a bankable movie star. That they attained, or got close to attaining, high political office is a symptom of corruptible political systems in which pre-existing socio-economic status is too easily convertible into political power.
The adolescent displays of sexuality on the part of Edwards and Weiner are something altogether different. Both of them look like spectacularly ambitious guys who are sexual babes in the woods. No accomplished philanderer, much less one running for president, would have let his sexual exertions be videoed the way Edwards did or sent preening images of his sexual self over the Internet the way Weiner did.
When we see a fifteen-year-old doing that sort of thing we shake our heads wistfully contemplating the follies of youth. Seen in that light, Edwards’s and Weiner’s political rise and fall look less like a matter of bad character betraying political ambition than of the arrested character development of accomplished political shape-shifters. As such, it makes political sense only against the backdrop of a political system in which pre-existing socio-economic status might not hurt, but public careers are still open to talent.
Both Edwards and Weiner raised themselves up from undistinguished socio-economic backgrounds by investing nearly all their adult energy in remaking themselves to the specifications of the professional and political positions they aspired to fill. Edwards was a working-class kid who turned himself, first, into an accomplished trial lawyer, then into a New Democratic Senator in the mold of Bill Clinton (without the personal baggage) and then, when the political climate changed between 2003 and 2007, into a latter-day Robert Kennedy ready to lead the liberal wing of the Democratic Party to the promised land.
Weiner was a middle-class kid from Long Island who set his eyes on political office as soon as he got out of college and went to work in the congressional offices of Chuck Schumer. Pretty soon he'd jumped to the New York City Council and then to Congress as a moderate Democrat. When the opportunity arose after the 2008 election to turn himself into the spokesperson for the liberal base of the Democratic Party he seized it in the hope that it would position him to become the next mayor of New York City. To this casual observer, both Edwards and Weiner spent so much of their adult energy remaking themselves to the specification of the jobs they aspired to fill that they didn't have enough left over to develop an adult character.
None of these guys, of course, have any business in high political office: Strauss-Kahn and Schwarzenegger because they’re reprehensible; Edwards and Weiner because they’re pathetic.