Private Lives

by John Derbyshire (May 2007)


I don’t know how much of an airing the Jim McGreevey business got outside the East coast.  McGreevey was governor of New Jersey until November 2004, when he resigned.  The occasion of his resignation was his having hired a young Israeli national as his homeland security advisor.  The young man had no qualifications for the post and, not being a U.S. citizen, could not get federal security clearance.  It emerged that McGreevey was a homosexual and had hired the young man in hopes of seducing him.  Whether those hopes were ever realized is uncertain, but at any rate, the employee cried sexual harassment.  McGreevey confessed his homosexuality in a gush of Oprah-Show identity babble (“My truth is that I am a gay American…”), and the resignation followed.

McGreevey and his wife parted soon thereafter, and are now involved in divorce proceedings, with both parties claiming custody of their five-year-old daughter.  New Jersey has got itself a new Governor—one who apparently believes the state’s speed limits and seatbelt laws are for the “little people,” not for those as important as himself—and life goes on.  

A friend of mine, a well-credentialed American conservative, had this to say about the McGreevey flap: “I couldn’t care less about the sex lives of our politicians. What should matter is whether they can govern effectively, legitimately and honestly. So long as it’s legal, what they do in their bedrooms ought to be their business, not ours.”

While I do not doubt my friend’s personal sincerity here, the thing he said set off my cant detector.  The idea that we should not care about a politician’s private life is part of the cant of our age.  The fact that some people, including some conservatives, honestly believe it, as my friend surely does, subtracts nothing from the fact that we are all supposed to believe it, whether we actually do or not; or from the other fact that, as is the essential nature of cant, large numbers of people say it because it’s a thing to say when you haven’t really thought about the matter much, or at all.

Allow me, then, to take a look at this proposition — the proposition that a politician’s private life should be of no consequence in our deciding whether or not to vote for him, so long as his private pleasures are not illegal or tortious.

The idea takes its strength from the American attachment to individual liberty and tolerance for human variety.  Those are noble and good sentiments, which I am fully on board with — so much so, it seem churlish to continue writing.  Having waded this far away from the bank, though, I may as well start swimming and see where I end up.

We are, after all, talking about elected politicians — persons who, after careful inspection and deliberation, we entrust with awesome public responsibilities.  I don’t think it’s unfair to apply narrower standards to aspiring Senators, Governors, or Presidents than we do to our plumber, dentist, or bridge partner.  I’d be perfectly happy to have my drains unclogged or my cavities filled by a person who I knew derived his chief sexual pleasure from autoerotic asphyxiation.  Would I vote for such a person as Governor?  No, I would not.  If this is discrimination, or bigotry, or onanasphyxiophobia, or some other offense against postmodern ethics, then all I can say is that Political Correctness has left me so far behind I shall never catch up.

Getting back to my friend’s original point:  Is there any reason to think that people who are sexually eccentric or extravagant in one way or another are less capable of fulfilling the duties of high office?  This is a nontrivial question.  Let’s take a glance at the historical evidence.

It doesn’t actually tell us much.  Politicians are busy folk, too busy to be much bothered with the ancillary benefits of power.  Of recent U.S. presidents, and making due allowance for the youthful sowing of wild oats, both the Bushes seem to be exceptionally uxorious, and it is very hard to believe that there are any surprises there waiting to jump out at us.  When, in the 1992 campaign, Democrats tried to float a story about GHWB having had an illicit love affair, the thing quickly sank without trace mainly because no-one could believe it of the man.  Ronald Reagan likewise, once he had found the woman that suited him; and of course Jimmy Carter’s victory over the demons of lust was well advertised.  I never heard any salty stories about Gerald Ford, whose presidency is now far enough in the past that stories would surely have come out by now if there were any.

Richard Nixon was, according to Monica Crowley, perfectly uninterested in sex after he reached middle life, and I know of no evidence to the contrary.   (Monica worked with Nixon in his post-presidential years.  I hope she won’t mind my saying so, but if a person can work alongside Monica without displaying any sexual enthusiasm, the case is proven right there.)  JFK’s extramarital dalliances are now notorious; but whether they affected the execution of his presidential duties is, I think, an open question; though on at least one occasion they may have had a glancing effect on national security.  LBJ I know next to nothing about; but if he was sexually adventurous, the news has escaped me.  Eisenhower had an extramarital affair of sorts, and looking at pictures of Mamie, one is not very surprised:  but by the time he got to the Presidency his libido was running pretty low, if not altogether on empty.

The missing name there is of course Bill Clinton.  One feels, after all the scandals and revelations of the last 14 years, that one knows more about Bill Clinton’s sex life than one knows about one’s own.  That Clinton’s sexual excesses affected the course of his presidency is hardly open to dispute.  The man’s defenders say that this was not his fault;  that if it were not for the vindictiveness of his political enemies, he could have been left happily goosing cocktail waitresses and playing cigar games with interns without any consequences for national policy at all.  This is really equivalent to saying that a public person’s political enemies should regard certain aspects of his private behavior as out of bounds for criticism or attack.  Certainly that is a defensible proposition (though it would raise a hollow laugh from Bob Packwood or Clarence Thomas), but it has not been a working premise of our political life for thirty years, and a politician who lays himself open in this way in our current political environment is a fool.

Clinton’s greatest sin — this has been said before, but not often enough — was not resigning when the scandals began to occupy large parts of his time and energy.  That was the sin of pride; and the key question is whether that aspect of the man’s personality is connected with his philandering.  I suspect that it is:  The pride of surviving the assaults of one’s enemies, even at heavy cost to the public duties one is supposed to be performing, seems to me not far removed psychologically from the pride of having one’s way with pretty women, even at heavy cost to one’s own marriage.  I don’t know how I could prove this, though, and so I leave this as an open question.

If we go out beyond America’s shores, we find much the same.  Britain’s political leaders are, sexually speaking, a dull lot.  You have to go back fifteen Prime Ministers, all the way to David Lloyd George (1916-22) for anything but negative sexual interest.  (The negatives: Ted Heath was a celibate bachelor, Harold Macmillan famous in this department mainly for having been a cuckold.)  The rest were dully uxorious.   John Major, it is true, had a fling; but it was a one-off, and the man was so dull nobody could work up any interest about it.  “Last of the gray-hot lovers,” was the joke in Britain at the time.  Anthony Eden was a fop, and sensationally handsome by the standards of his time, but not a sexual athlete.  He is nowadays remembered mainly on account of Bertrand Russell’s response when that philosopher was asked for an opinion about Eden:  “Not a gentleman.  Dresses too well.”

Outside the world of consensual democratic politics, this too-busy effect is even more marked.  None of the great totalitarian despots of the 20th century had interesting sex lives while they were politically active.  Lenin and Stalin seem to have been content with monogamy, seasoned with a very occasional side affair.  Hitler had little interest in sex at all, perhaps none.  Mao gave up sex altogether while erecting the People’s Republic, rediscovering it in his sixties when he finally had some leisure time. 

Reviewing William Duiker’s biography of Ho Chi Minh for National Review I had this to say:  “In true Leninist style, Ho seems to have had very little personal life.  He used women briefly, then wandered off to make more revolution.”  That was the usual revolutionary pattern.  Kim Il-sung also conformed to it, though once secure in his rule he lapsed, like Mao, into the kind of sexual lifestyle that 18th-century historians would have characterized as “oriental,” with harems of young beauties in attendance at all his many palaces.  (The military-style unit these lasses were recruited into was called Kippeunjo, “the Happy Corps.”)  His son and successor, Kim Jong-il, has taken Dad’s later enthusiasms to new levels:  If Bradley Martin’s book on the Kims can be believed, one of the Kims, probably Junior, has the distinction of having invented an entirely new sexual practice:  the human bed.  I shall leave you to read about this for yourselves in Martin’s very interesting book, pp. 202-3.

All these tastes, it should be noted, were heterosexual.  Outside the Arab world, which has its own peculiar standards, the only notable exception was Kemal Atatürk, whose countrymen take great pride in boasting of the National Father’s busy bisexuality.  Since Atatürk was, I think it is widely acknowledged, a Good Thing, this seems to argue in favor of my friend’s point of view that politicians’ private inclinations should not concern us.  Atatürk was an outlier, though, a very unusual man in all sorts of ways — he was, for instance, a master of self-control when he needed to be — and I am not sure he can be taken as representative of any general theory.  In any case, he was certainly not “gay” in the self-conscious current sense, nor as far from the norm for his culture as he would have been in the U.S.A..

To return to modern American politics, I believe there is much dishonesty and self-deception going on here, all driven by this loathsome and anti-human cult of Political Correctness.  Jim McGreevey’s homosexuality was widely rumored even before he became Governor.  Why didn’t reporters tackle him about it?  Why, when the dashing young Israeli was appointed to the homeland security post, did the press not inquire into his credentials, or into his relationship with McGreevey?  Why?  Because they were afraid they’d be accused of “homophobia,” that’s why.

This is really no different from airport security screeners strip-searching 85-year-old grandmothers while waving glittery-eyed young Arab males through the gates.  Essential functions in our republic — scrutiny of public officials by the press, scrutiny of passengers boarding airplanes — are more and more paralyzed by our terror of giving offense, or of inciting a lawsuit, or of being howled at as “bigot,” “racist,” “homophobe,” and the rest of the PC insult-vocabulary.

Given this factor — the factor, I mean, that a politician who is sexually odd is less likely to have his deeds scrutinized as they should be, because of the scrutinizer’s fear of being thought “mean-spirited” — I don’t think my friend’s original remark can stand unchallenged.  In the present state of our culture, a politician who is homosexual (for example) will, for the reasons given above, to some extent be given a free ride, as McGreevey was.  That is not good for the Republic.  It’s not good for the Republic for anyone to get a free ride.  Now, I will certainly agree that this isn’t really the politician’s fault, but the culture’s.  We are stuck with the culture we have, though, and can’t do much about it.  In the case of the politician, we can decline to vote for him.  Perhaps this is unfair, but it is none the less rational electoral decision-making.  Nobody has a right to your vote.

I think, too, that a lot of this sort of decision-making comes down to matters of taste — a much under-estimated factor in electoral politics.  Personally, I would not vote for a gross philanderer, or a sado-masochist, or a homosexual, or (see above) an autoerotic self-asphyxiator.  I like my politicians to be fairly close to the behavioral norm — within a sigma of it, at any rate.  My life experience has been that sexually eccentric people are likely to be unstable in other areas, and are much more disposed than the rest of us to sexual favoritism (as both the Clinton and the McGreevey cases illustrate), and “birds of a feather” clustering

That’s a likelihood, not a watertight rule.  Some members of behavioral minorities are, I am sure, quite dependable and fair-minded, while of course many behaviorally average people are untrustworthy.  When evaluating politicians, though, we are perforce working from incomplete information, and must to some degree go with the percentages.  Based on observation of the world across four decades or so, in all sorts of social environments, I believe the percentages here are compellingly large. 

My belief may, of course, be mistaken; perhaps it is; but I am entitled to my opinions, at least until the PC stormtroopers come to drag me away, and shall continue to employ them when voting. 


Nor will I deny that another, minor factor here is sheer cussedness.  Big Brother and his consort Nanny State can now tell us who to hire and fire, who to let a room to, who our kids must go to school and college with, who will organize our sports teams and Boy Scout troops.  They cannot yet tell us who to vote for, though.  This is one of the dwindling areas of life where we may still freely pick our man (or, of course, woman). 

Until this liberty is declared unconstitutional, I shall exercise it, making fair deductions about a candidate’s likely public behavior from whatever I can learn about his private life.  I must therefore dissent from my friend’s view, and from the common cant on this point.  I believe private lives matter.


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