I guess I should blush to admit that my Washington Examiner column this week focuses on "Weinergate." But who among us can resist snickering at a scandal this hilarious---who so sober and serious that they could ignore the crotch pic that launched a thousand puns?
As I argue in the column, among all the horselaughs to be had, there are also lessons to be learned:
There's nothing wrong with enjoying a good old-fashioned political sex scandal. They're entertaining, and they may even be edifying -- reminding us that self-styled "public servants" are often less responsible, more venal, and just plain dumber than those they seek to rule.
Some writers with whom I'm normally simpatico disagree. Doug Mataconis of Outside the Beltway deplores "the odd American obsession with political sex scandals." The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf also condemns the attention given the Weiner kerfuffle:
there is a significant cost to obsessing over these things. The opportunity cost, for the media, is covering lots of other matters that are actually of greater import to the public, whatever one thinks of sex scandals.
I just don't see it. Sure, in a better world, the news cycle might consist of a dignified 24/7 seminar on debt limits, insurance exchanges, the War Powers Resolution, and the like. But here on earth, Weinergate’s mainly crowding out more coverage of Sarah Palin’s bus tour.
"And for the politician in question," Friedersdorf continues, "scandal consumes all the time he'd otherwise be dedicating to his official duties."
I confess, I have a hard time not seeing this as win-win.
Both Mataconis and Friedersdorf argue that "private" sexual behavior tells us little about how politicians do their jobs. And I see their point, to a point. I sometimes joke, lamely, that one of my favorite presidents was a draft-dodging, womanizing Democrat elected in '92 (wait for it)... Grover Cleveland.
But whether or not we should care about congressional "sexting"---in the context of the modern media Panopticon, isn't someone, like Weiner, who engages in it (especially after GOP Rep. Christopher Lee's downfall) at least a reckless idiot? And isn't that relevant to his job?
In a recent hand-wringing editorial, the New York Times fretted about disgraced former Senator and VP candidate John Edwards.
What the Times found unfortunate wasn't the runaway prosecution--a legitimate complaint--but the fact that it would draw attention to yet another giant political phony. It's "the last thing the nation needs: another cautionary tale of hubris," says the Grey Lady, "the woeful courtroom coda to [Edwards'] once flourishing political career can only invite a further slide toward wariness and cynicism for American voters."
Oh no! Not more "wariness and cynicism"! Surely, that's the "last thing the nation needs" in an era of promiscuous warmaking and reckless spending!
There's a story (perhaps apocryphal) where F. Scott Fitzgerald says to Ernest Hemingway, "the rich are different from you and me," and Hemingway supposedly replies, "yes, they have more money." I don't know about the rich, but the political class is, by and large, different from the rest of us--and not just because they have more power.
By reminding us of how untrustworthy and reckless these people can be--how little control they often exhibit in their own lives--political sex scandals may even serve an important social purpose: they remind us that we should think twice before granting them more control over ours.