Does it matter if Herman Cain had an affair?

As new allegations against Herman Cain emerge, the nagging question about politicians and sexual misconduct come to the fore: Does … Continued

As new allegations against Herman Cain emerge, the nagging question about politicians and sexual misconduct come to the fore: Does it matter if Cain had an affair? Do those in office, or those seeking office, actually behave worse than the rest of us? Does it really matter if they do? Could

Photo: Linda Davidson/The Post

WASHINGTON, DC – OCTOBER 31: Herman Cain, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, at the National Press Club in Washington, DC on October 31, 2011. Allegations surfaced that during Herman Cain’s tenure as the head of the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s, at least two female employees complained to colleagues and senior association officials about inappropriate behavior by Cain.

it be that we simply pay more attention when they do, and if so, why do we do so?

Knowing of no rigorous study of the sexual misdeeds of politicians and those seeking elected office, I don’t think we can say that such people are more likely to commit such misdeeds. But I understand why they might — I understand, but I do not excuse. I can imagine that there is a relationship between the kind of personality that ignores personal limits, and simply believes that whatever or whoever is out there is for theirs for the taking, and the self-confidence of a person bold enough to run for office. That confidence may sometimes not only tempt them towards adultery but may also draw thousands of people to them.

Each is a kind of hubris, and sometimes it’s channeled well and sometimes not. When it’s the former, it may express itself with a leap into public service, and when not, into a leap into private sexual misconduct. So maybe pols do behave worse than the rest of us. But even if they do, does it really matter?

Does a person’s private misconduct really invalidate their potential value as public servants? I am not talking about the lies and the cover-ups which follow such events – those are public misdeeds which demonstrate an office holder’s or a candidate’s ability to address their public honestly. I am talking about the fact that there may be far less connection between private ethics and public ethics than we typically assume.

I appreciate that we demand sexual morality from our politicians because sexual morality is, we presume, a good predictor of trustworthiness. But is it? Isn’t history filled with stories of great leaders who found maintaining monogamy a challenge?

History is filled with the stories of people who accomplished great good for the larger public despite having personal lives that were pretty bad. A list of such people might begin with Moses, JFK, MLK Jr. I could go on, but that list gives a sense of how the problem crosses eras, spiritual traditions and geographic boundaries.

Why can we not accept that people may be masterful public servants even if they may be failures in private life? Isn’t that how it works with all of us – good at some things and poor at others, sensitive to some issues and completely blind to others? Why should it be any different with public servants?

That we seem to hold people in politics to a different standard may well say more about us than it does about them or the job which we entrust them to do.

For starters, politicians’ lives are already very public so we feel entitled to know about pretty much every part of their lives, and because people love sexual stories, the lives of politicians are an easy mark. Then there is the fact that it’s always easier to focus on someone else’s misdeeds than our own, especially if they are famous. We love celebrities, but part of the current obsession with celebrities is seeing them fall from grace; it seems to make people who are not famous feel better about themselves.

Ultimately, I think that we demand sexual morality from our politicians, not because it means that they will be better politicians, but because we can do so with relative ease, and because it makes us feel better about ourselves. That doesn’t mean that sexual misconduct is okay. And in the case of alleged sexual harassment, we should pursue any claim that is even remotely credible, especially given how underreported such crimes are.

By being more realistic about people’s failings, and by creating a culture which reacts to stories of sexual impropriety in a way that less resembles a feeding frenzy by sharks, we might get politicians who waste no time pretending to be ideal, and simply do a better job of being real — failings and all — leaving us to focus on whether or not they can do the job which they are elected to do.

Brad Hirschfield
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  • nicholsdaves

    I just think good ole Herman needs to build himself some “Electrified” pants to keep his little Buddy from trying to “Cross the Border illegally.”

    Isn’t Adultry illegal?

    Yeah, lets “Enforce our Laws”, just not the one’s Herman breaks?

  • Sajanas

    Adultery isn’t illegal, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that someone can’t do their job as a public servant, but at the same time, politics is as much the ability to appear likable and honest, and having an extramarital affair is a major blow to both of those things. Even more so when a politician, either as an individual, or as part of a political movement, cloaks themselves in ‘family values’ or ‘morality’. Isn’t it good to know when an anti-gay politician is secretly having torrid, anonymous gay sex? Its one thing when a politician is just trying to do their job, but it seems that half of them are trying to push their Donna Reed notions of family life on us, as if that makes them better, while in practice, they are just as far from that.

    And then there is also the thought that the last thing I want a president, supreme court judge or senator to be doing while their in office is going through a messy divorce. We are these people’s bosses, and we need to know that politicians are still doing their job and not being distracted by all their dalliances, just like we wouldn’t keep on an employee that was too busy with their own problems to do their job.

  • AmazeMe

    It’s framing the issue in terms of sexual conduct or misconduct that creates the appearance of moral ambiguity when the ethical failures are really quite clear. Adultery is above all the breaking of a promise (to be faithful to one’s spouse) and thus an indicator of untrustworthiness. In addition, a secret long-term affair clearly requires a tolerance and a talent for sustained and systematic dishonesty. And as Hirschfield acknowledges, sexual harassment would raise the wrongness to another level, the reason being that it’s an abuse of power or authority. It seems to me that we already have enough officeholders who can’t keep a promise, tell the truth or use their power responsibly. Why elect another of those when we’ve been forewarned?

  • AmazeMe

    Scott, I was just generalizing, as I took Hirschfield to be doing. But I would say the evidence that Cain might have misbehaved is stronger than the evidence for “Socialist hegemony in the executive.”

  • ccnl1

    It is not the sexual conduct but the breaking of vows, the cheating and the lying that count as significant minuses in a politician’s character.

  • Carstonio

    Hirschfield doesn’t seem to distinguish between simple adultery between neighbors or co-workers, and the abuse of power when a politician or office-holder exploits his power and authority. This term covers both the relations that Bill Clinton had and the sexual harassment that Herman Cain is accused of committing. Many people tend to rationalize simple adultery as people being overcome by their emotions, a claim which is insulting to the intelligence. But abuse of power is far worse morally because it’s a mindset that views people as playthings.

  • Kingofkings1

    Adultery and lying in itself may be forgiven by the public (and certainly can be forgiven by the forgiving God), but the public has problems with the many lies used to cover up one lie. And this is an indicator of the person’s general trustworthiness in other things. If the politician says truthfully the facts as they are, I am certainly willing to forgive an indiscretion (and I believe so are many others)

  • Kingofkings1

    Family values for many conservative politicians means the family values of the consituency, and excludes their own personal family

  • persiflage

    Cain and Bachman have to be two of the least presidential candidates every fielded by the GOP. Cain’s long-term behavior patterns with women aside, his business profile has never been fully revealed to the general public. His so-called credentials were cherry-picked to the maximum. The article below brings sorely needed clarity to this issue.

  • SteveinOhio1

    The time it takes to keep an affair under wraps is time taken away from leading. The public has the right to expect their representative to devote a lot of time to the process of governing, and not to be distracted by efforts at keeping their sexual foibles from the public eye. Also, a representative who engages in philandering could rightly have his ability to exercise good judgment called in to question.

  • csintala79

    What matters is when they lie about their affairs and other sexual misconduct. If they would just fess up and accept blame it would go away. As a Christian nation most people are willing to forgive someone expressing sincere remorse. Calling your accusers liars just adds insult to injury.

  • Secular1

    It really does not matter whether this buffoon had an affair or not. Simply because he is a buffoon, so he is totally unqualified, period.

  • usapdx

    All elected to our government must fully comply with their oath of office, all our laws as well as leave their religion and sex life out of our government.

  • amelia45

    Well done. I would be glad to hear less of the sex lives of politicians and would rather we go back to the days when politicians knew they had to be discrete and we all knew affairs went on but we didn’t talk about it. Can you image in this day and age actually respecting a well known person’s personal life as, well, personal?

    What I would much rather focus on is politicians who tell the truth. We have relegated truth telling to some fourth or fifth level of importance because sexual purity is considered more important. We should not shrug off Senator Jon Kyl’s lie with an explanation that it was “not intended to be a factual statement.” If it was not intended to tell the truth it was intended to lie, it was on purpose and it was his objective to lie. In the public sphere we are individually harmed much more by the lies and deceptions of politicians than we are by their sexual picadillos. Because we will act on what we believe to be the truth in how we vote.

  • StarRiders

    Extra marital affairs rank dead last on matters I consider important. I want to know a candidate’s voting record, what (s)he stands for, and just how capable she (s)he is in delivering those campaign promises. A politician can have hundreds of affairs for all I care.

  • csintala79

    If one shows remorse and is penitent, yes. However if he or she refuses accountability, tries to blame others, especially the victim, and is self-righteous, no.

  • TopTurtle

    I don’t usually care that much about infidelity. What bothers me more is politicians claiming divine mandates when they can’t follow divine commands themselves.