Commentary: Ain't that a shame - no one takes blame?
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 1, 2013: Asked if he thought sex was dirty, Woody Allen replied that he thought it was, if done properly. His offhand witticism demonstrates the enduring truth that some things are best left in private. In fact, personal privacy allows one to assume some pretense of dignity in public life.
The cardinal sin for members of the Boomer generation was hypocrisy. The “tell it like it is” crowd prized truth above all else. The resulting deluge of candor transformed notions of propriety; sometimes for the better, often not.
The press, for instance, was once willing to turn a blind eye toward the personal indiscretions of public figures so long as the actions didn’t affect their performance in office. Both FDR and Eisenhower kept mistresses during the Second World War. That fact was left unreported as the allies marched to victory.
The public face of the Kennedy White House was Camelot, though the backstage action there was apparently better suited for the Playboy Mansion. Yet, JFK still managed to save the world during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The combined effect of the Vietnam War and Watergate forever altered the gentlemen’s agreement between politicians and the press. Suddenly, Pulitzer Prizes were going to reporters who peered behind closed doors and recounted the details of what they saw, regardless of how embarrassing those revelations might have been. In doing so, they began to openly discuss topics that were previously taboo. Somewhere in the process, we seem to have lost our collective sense of shame.
By the time Bill Clinton came on the scene, the gloves were off. Salacious revelations were considered legitimate news stories in the name of the people’s right to know, even though they had no practical impact on the business of the nation.
The Lewinsky affair was to shamelessness what the celebration of Christmas is to wrapping-paper sales. The president shamelessly exploited an intern who, in turn, shamelessly complied and kept a shameful souvenir of their tryst. Congressional Republicans—many of whom were actively engaged in similar indiscretions—shamelessly sought to exploit the tawdry scandal for political gain, while the press breathlessly introduced oral sex as a staple of the evening news.
As this orgy of embarrassment unfolded, Clinton launched a Tomahawk missile attack on a campsite believed to house Osama bin Laden. At the time, he was accused of trying to “wag the dog” to divert attention from the more important matter of Monica’s dress — a garment that was largely forgotten after the first jetliner crashed into the World Trade Center.
At present, the unhappily named Anthony Weiner doggedly pursues the Democratic mayoral nomination in New York. Mr. Weiner reportedly sent frank photos of his personal anatomy to unsuspecting young women he met on the internet. This pastime caused him to resign his congressional seat in 2011. A psychiatrist might term such behavior a compulsion.
Earlier this year, Weiner re-entered the political arena by filing for mayor — a freshly rehabilitated exhibitionist, happily married and dedicated to public service. New York is a liberal venue and it was not inconceivable that voters might give him, well, a second look.
Then came news that after leaving the Congress and while his wife bore their child, he continued to expose himself to electronic playmates. He, of course, takes full responsibility and promises to do better. He is unwilling, however, to suffer the consequences of his actions by folding his now obviously moribund campaign.
As of this writing, Weiner continues to supply late-night comedians with a surfeit of fodder with his wife standing gamely by his side. She is either an incredibly forgiving spouse who took the “for better or for worse” part of her vows quite literally, or another delusionally ambitious climber who can’t stop chasing the brass ring of celebrity, however long the odds against her.
Ironically, the likely beneficiary of Weiner’s collapse is Christine Quinn, an openly gay rival for the nomination. In decades past, her sexual orientation would have precluded a career in politics. Today, with homosexuality widely accepted as a fact of life, she’s the front-runner. That’s the upside of our modern sensibilities.
The downside is that we’ve managed to chase most decent people out of the process. We’re left with shameless opportunists who will do or say virtually anything to cling to office because the only unforgivable sin in politics is losing.
Instead of convictions, these people have constituencies. The campaigns they wage have less to do with ideals than ambitions and have thus devolved into mutually degrading exercises in character assassination in which neither party has the common decency to blush.
Weiner is just an extreme — and pathetic — example of the ilk. When his type is caught with their pants down, they have no choice but to carry on because like the idiots who populate reality TV, they’ll do anything to remain in the spotlight.
When political machines slated candidates, party elders usually filtered out the nutcases. Today’s primary system opens the door to anyone with the audacity to run.
All too often, the only people willing to suffer the indignities of the modern campaign are those who are unfit to serve. As Blaise Pascal so aptly observed, “The only shame is to have none.”