Nothing gets Washington atwitter (old-school atwitter, not Twitter) like a good sex scandal.
In the real world, people remember where they were when Kennedy was shot or the space shuttle exploded. In D.C., we remember where we were when we watched the Gov. Jim McGreevey train-wreck of an "I am a gay American" press conference, or heard of Sen. Larry Craig's "wide stance" while on the toilet.
So when Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) announced late Tuesday that he'd had an extramarital affair with a staffer, D.C. was buzzing like we'd all had an extra-shot latte.
Excitement waned, though, when initial details of Ensign's marital infidelity suggested a garden-variety sex scandal. I realized then that the worst part of the story is that sex scandals are so commonplace in politics that a sitting senator announcing he cheated on his wife with a co-worker is not that shocking. It seems a sex scandal has to find fresh new angles (a la Mark Foley or Gary Condit) just to keep our interest.
The larger moral issue is that extramarital affairs have become more acceptable to Americans, which I blame on Bill Clinton. It's still shocking to me that Clinton would have the arrogance to carry on a sexual affair with an intern in the White House. His deficit of morals, disregard of marital vows and disrespect for the office of the presidency forever shifted the nation's views of acceptable sexual behavior for public officials. In the post-Clinton era, the Gary Hart cheating scandal seems downright quaint.
Once the Clinton intern scandal broke, we heard every gross detail of his oral sex in the Oval Office. In fact, the Clinton affair was so over-the-top (but under the desk) and so detailed (remember the blue dress?) that Americans became forever numb to the sex-scandal shocks. (And no, I don't blame Ken Starr or congressional Republicans for making the details public; if Clinton had not had the affair in the first place, there would obviously have been nothing for his critics to investigate and divulge.)
One thing I can't tell you, though, is why it seems that most of the politicians caught in sex scandals tend to be fellow Republicans. We think of ourselves as the party of family values and yet our guys are screwing around; that's embarrassing.
But like I said, both Ds and Rs now need a unique or somehow more salacious angle to get any sustained attention for a sex scandal. So below is my ranking of the best/worst sex scandals in the post-Clinton era, based on the excitement level of jaded D.C. insiders:
1. Former Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) for the "wide stance" excuse, the married-but-secretly-gay possibility, and the details of the bathroom stall.
2. Former Rep. Mark Foley (R-FL) whose instant messages to boys were so icky we couldn't stop reading.
3. Former Gov. Jim McGreevey (D-N.J.) for the wife who stood at his side during the press conference (until the book came out) and the unforgettable "I am a gay American" line.
4. Former Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D-N.Y.) because Mr. Rectitude was a hypocrite who had paid for a hooker.
5. Former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) for claiming he cheated on his wife only when her cancer was in remission and for apparently letting a loyal campaign aide pretend to be his girlfriend's baby daddy.
6. Former Rep. Don Sherwood (R-PA) for the 911 calls and police reports that alleged he'd choked his mistress, which Sherwood denied.
7. Former Rep. Vito Fossella (R-N.Y.) for his secret second family.
8. Former Senate candidate Jack Ryan (R-IL) for the pre-election bombshell that derailed his senate race and gave the country President Obama: Ryan's ex-wife reportedly accused him of trying to make her go to sex clubs, according records in the couple's divorce file. He denied the accusation.
9. Former Rep. Ed Schrock (R-VA) for an allegation by a gay activist that the congressman placed gay personal ads.
10. Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) for his phone number in the D.C. Madam's black book and his admission of "sin".
Ensign and his affair, in other words, didn't even make the list. So while almost everyone on the above list has the word "former" preceding their titles, I don't think Ensign will step down. But is it good or bad for the country that this sex scandal is unlikely to end his political career?
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