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Scot Lehigh

Adultery and the politician

Newt Gingrich had an affair with his current (and third) wife, Callista, during his previous marriage. Newt Gingrich had an affair with his current (and third) wife, Callista, during his previous marriage. (Getty Images)
By Scot Lehigh
May 20, 2011

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MARITAL MATTERS are much on the American mind this month. Actually, make that extra-marital matters.

Why? Well, adultery, it turns out, is much easier to commit than to explain.

That’s particularly true if you’re a politician, because if you’re in public life, people sometimes expect more of you.

Exactly why is a mystery, given the public’s generally low regard for the political species. And yet it nevertheless seems to be the case, especially when it comes to present, past, and aspiring holders of high office.

And so it is that Arnold Schwarzenegger finds himself in the national doghouse over news that, sometime after “Jingle All the Way,’’ he fathered a child with a domestic staffer — and then kept the secret from wife Maria Shriver for years.

Thrice-married admitted adulterer Newt Gingrich, meanwhile, is busy trying to position himself as the champion of the family-values crowd. That exercise has provided some delicious comedy. Witness, for example, Gingrich’s hard-work-and-patriotism-led-me-to-stray explanation. Nevada Senator John Ensign, a man who once harbored presidential hopes, just resigned from the Senate because of ethical misconduct precipitated by marital misconduct.

And then there’s this novel twist on more mundane marital malaise: News that, in the 1990s, Mitch and Cheri Daniels divorced, and Cheri then wed another man. After three years and another divorce, she remarried Mitch, now governor of Indiana. That odd interlude is apparently weighing on their minds as they contemplate a presidential candidacy.

But though it’s mainly the Republicans who have found their matrimonial behavior under the media microscope of late, wandering is hardly a one-party weakness. From Gary Hart’s monkey business to Bill Clinton’s womanizing to the tawdry truth behind John Edwards’ seeming devotion to Elizabeth to Eliot Spitzer’s rendezvous with a prostitute while governor of New York, the issue has obviously bedeviled Democrats as well. If, as H.L. Mencken once said, adultery is the application of democracy to love, the American political class seems full of small-d democrats.

So what can be said about sex, marriage, and politics? Well, for starters, take with a shaker of salt those happy-family poses; political appearances are frequently deceiving, and there’s often trouble even in putative public-couple paradise.

Second, we shouldn’t be surprised by adultery. Libido and ego share the same psychological bandwidth, which means politicians are as apt to be marital sinners as saints. “I have known 11 prime ministers and 10 were adulterers,’’ British premier William Gladstone observed — and that was back during the supposedly virtuous Victorian era.

What does sometimes astonish, however, is their recklessness. Given his history, it was hardly astounding that Bill Clinton would indulge his adulterous impulse in the White House. Yet it was dumbfounding that he would have a dalliance with a young flibbertigibbet. It was equally stunning that, as governor, Spitzer would patronize a prostitute. And that Schwarzenegger would run for governor with a lust child in his marital past. Thus did concupiscence make con men of them all.

The Danielses, however, are a very different story. Like many couples, they had problems in the past. But if today’s appearances are to be believed (note caveat above), they are happy today. No doubt it’s a painful topic for them, but from what we know so far, there’s no reason it should give voters pause.

Indeed, the view here is that marital troubles, and, more specifically, isolated instances of adultery, shouldn’t by themselves be disqualifying. And yet sometimes an episode spotlights conduct so shabby that it’s hard to get beyond. Witness the political pariah John Edwards has become. The way Gingrich treated his first and second wives bespeaks a similar shabbiness.

Still, Newt’s big problem right now is not his marital misconduct but his political wandering. What the Republican establishment is up in arms about is his infidelity to Paul Ryan’s Medicare-restructuring plans.

Politicians may only be human — but some transgressions simply can’t be forgiven.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com.