David Greenberg, a professor of history and journalism and media studies at Rutgers, is an editor at Politico Magazine. He is the author of several works of political history, including, most recently, Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency.
What prevents a person from holding a high political office? Just as we think we know the rules, they change.
Certain violations have always been career killers. Few politicians have withstood abstinence from flagrant corruption, violent crime or child pornography – although voters, so to be added, have been surprisingly forgiving towards their favorite representatives. More than a few decades have even won re-election from the prison.
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But if serious crimes can be expected to cause serious damage, the meaning we have given to others is very different. Taboos on divorce and homosexuality in the 1950s disappeared into moral police surveillance in the 1980s about drug use, infidelity and evasion of air disasters, and today, as the political unrest in Virginia and elsewhere increases, a new series of inviolable behavior forward, from sexual harassment to wearing blackface years ago to other forms of racial crime. And the speed with which the transgressions have become sacred suggests that they will produce many more scandals in the coming months and years.
To see how quickly political morality can change, you remember that in the lives of many living Americans great shame was attached to just to divorce. Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic presidential candidate in 1952 and 1956, was the first nominee of the big party that was divorced – a fact that grumbled and disapproved and probably affected his already low odds on Dwight D. Eisenhower. A few years later, when New York governor Nelson Rockefeller divorced his wife for a younger woman, the Republicans denied him the nod of his party in 1964 – although his liberalism in the field of civil rights probably hurt him more.
If a divorce brought with it a touch of discredit, being openly gay in politics was unheard of. There were certainly a handful (or more) of gay officers, but no one dared to test the taboo until the eighties, so there is no way to know. Occasionally however, high-level officials were publicly excluded under painful conditions, such as Sumner Welles, officer of the Foreign Ministry, who was caught in 1940 by proposing a Pullman car doorman, or assistant to Lyndon B. Johnson, Walter Jenkins, arrested in 1964 in a YMCA men's room. When they were exposed, they had no choice but to acquiesce – and thus to make it clear that any undisputed homosexual senator or governor would have suffered. But, curiously, in the same period many successful politicians, including presidents Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Johnson, had no worries. Although open secrets in Washington circles, their falls were unknown to the public because business was generally regarded as part of someone's private life – not news that was suitable for printing.
Then came the sixties and a huge change in the standards of the Americans. Divorce, no longer a violation of a sacred pact, was treated as a lifestyle choice, a reasonable decision taken by adult adults to pursue their happiness. Doubting his morality seemed strange, even Puritan. By 1980, Ronald Reagan's divorce from actress Jane Wyman hardly justified comment. Meanwhile, the sexual revolution made Americans more comfortable with homosexuality – although it would take until the 1980s before any national politicians willingly came out of the closet. The former representative of Massachusetts, Barney Frank, is usually cited as the first national civil servant who voluntarily calls himself gay.
Just as important in changing how Americans judged their leaders were the Vietnam War and the Watergate crisis. For many, it seemed obvious that those disasters were rooted in the confused neuroses of presidents Johnson and Richard Nixon – both of whom showed signs of narcissism and paranoia. After that, reporters decided to examine the character of presidential candidates and other politicians. The large-scale deception with which Johnson and Nixon were engaged produced candidates who had honesty and authenticity – particularly Jimmy Carter, who reached the White House by telling voters that he would never lie to them. Like all presidents, he did that, albeit not on a Nixian scale.
But as & # 39; character & # 39; in a general sense means honesty and integrity, reporters came to define idiosyncratically in practice. Just as divorce and homosexuality represented taboos of an older generation, new definitions of character include the special preoccupations of the baby boom generation in middle age. In concrete terms, it meant whether you were dealing with adultery, draft avoidance or drug use.
Before the eighties of the last century those extramarital affairs that made headlines could be harmful, but most did not and did not. In the era of eating fringe, journalists considered the extramarital behavior of politicians as fair play. In 1987, when Senator Gary Hart, Senator of Colorado, became president, the Washington Post reporter Paul Taylor, like many of the presses of persistent infidelities and Hart's holier-than-you attitude, warned the candidate: "Have you ever committed adultery?" – grilling a part of 45 minutes about his marriage and private life. As a result of the dismay of an older generation, New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis called this questioning a "low point" for his profession. But the exposure of Hart's contacts with Donna Rice stimulated the candidate to stop the race, and similar questions about the sex life of other politicians were intensified.
In the end, the unpopularity of President Bill Clinton's accusation reduced the appetite of the media to investigate stories of mutual adultery. Although Clinton's pursuers claimed to accuse him of perjury, and not really adultery, most people saw the truth in Arkansas that Senator Dale Bumpers quip that: "When you hear someone say: & # 39; sex, it's all about sex. "A decade later, many Republicans would get along in the same opinion after the New York Times issued an article suggesting that John McCain, the likely Republican presidential candidate, slept with a 40-year-old lobbyist, which fell flat and brought more contempt for the Times than McCain, and since then scandals about unobtrusive business cases – unlike those about visiting prostitutes (Eliot Spitzer, David Vitter) – have sought minors ( Mark Foley, Anthony Weiner) or paying soft money (John Ensign) – the indignation not aroused that they have ever done.
Meanwhile, it is difficult to remember that all sorts of politicians were once routinely asked if they had used drugs, including pot. A semi-candidate admission to have experimented with marijuana at school & # 39; – summoning legions of chemistry majors who opt for a political career – could satisfy the moral police, but when the high-court candidate Douglas Ginsburg in 1987 confessed that he had smoked it with law students, his appointment went up in smoke. The following year, rumors that GOP vice presidential candidate Dan Quayle had bought marijuana led to a short-lived media furore – one of the many surrounding Quayle that summer – but the stories were never substantiated. Quayle only armed himself about the small nuisance of reporters who continually ridiculed his intellect.
Soon the idea that youthful recreational drug use showed a bad character also lost its traction. When Clinton became president in 1992, he felt compelled to explain that, while he tried the pot, he "did not inhale" – an admission that was more ridiculous because of his drowsiness than praise for his frankness. By the time Barack Obama walked in 2008, the taboo had largely disappeared and he could imagine himself younger and younger, saying, "When I was a kid, I inhaled, that was the point." He even went so far in his critically acclaimed memoirs to admit that he had not only used "pot" and "liquor," but even "a tiny blow when you could afford it." Efforts by Hillary Clinton allies such as BET founder Jim Johnson to politically Obama's abuse of drugs in 2008, failed.
As far as the avoidance of Vietnam is concerned, it seems that generic Kulturkampf has also played itself. Draft avoidance was not always a career-ender-perhaps because so many baby boomers did-but for years, politicians were constantly dealing with whims about why they had not fought in the war. In 1988 Quayle was (re) ill-treated because he had used family relationships to join the National Guard, so that he would not see any fighting in Vietnam. But he knew how to take the indignation away. Likewise Bill Clinton resisted in 1992 and George Bush in 2000 and 2004 criticizing making reservations to avoid service. The famous excuse of Dick Cheney was: "I had other priorities." Neither Clinton nor Bush's draft avoidance saved them from the White House, and by 2016 Donald Trump & # 39; s evasion with Vietnam was probably not among the Top 100 reasons people cited to vote against. November.
As the power of this foreign troika diminishes from problems to demand a political toll, it is tempting to conclude that we have become more tolerant and forgiving. But is that really true? The linguist John McWhorter has argued in an analogous way that although we may think more candidly about language, words that are once so relegated as "fuck" and "shit" are now omnipresent, in fact we have only learned to use the classic to follow four-letter vulgarities and blasphemies related to God, sex and excrement. With words expressing enthusiasm against African-Americans, women and homosexuals, we are more censorious than ever. Maybe this is because sensitivities have changed, and for modern ears the words "fuck" and "shit" do not really hurt anyone, while the forbidden slurping – when directed at people – can hurt others. Controversially, many people seem ready to ban these harmful words, not only when they are used as abuse words, but also when they describe what someone else has written or said.
In the same way, political offenses that do not directly harm others, such as pot use, are now less stigmatic, while actions that show hostility towards women and minorities have become understandably toxic. This represents a major shift. It used to be that telling ethnic jokes – as Ronald Reagan often did – or telling a lesbian joke, as Senator Bob Kerrey did during the 1992 campaign, would get you into hot water, but it did not bother to return. withdraw from a campaign or stop your job. Likewise, it was involuntary, uninvited for people to pet women on the floor for decades, outrageous commonplace; it would not evoke more than a dirty look.
Nowadays, the act threatens Blackface to be worn as a young man decades ago, the political livelihood of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring – and similar violations are also related to other politicians. Previous racist insults have been politically damaging for a long time, from Jeff Sessions who repeatedly called a black lawyer "boy," to George Allen who called an Indian-American to a campaign group "macaca." But other forms of racism, such as blackface, were scandalously tolerated in many parts in the more racially enlightened climate of those not too distant times. Although objectively as racist in the 1980s as it is today, Blackface was not considered a reason to break a political career; if it had been, many more careers would have ended. But the governor Mel Carnahan of Missouri, to quote one example, was revealed in 1999 to have worn blackface on 26, and retain the support of most black voters. New York Assemblyman Dov Hikind did this as part of a suit as recently as 2013 and drew only criticism, no unanimous crying for his resignation. The ugly reality is that not only yearbooks, school papers and other high school and collegial ephemera, but also mainstream films and magazines contain passages, images and scenes that we look back on today and shrink.
The predicament of Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax is also a sign of that time. For a large part of our past, accusations like those of Vanessa Tyson and Meredith Watson against him may never have come to light – so that men could not imagine that such violent behavior was not wrong, but that it was not politically fatal. used to be. Now it is often. Indeed, potential Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Steve Bullock are under attack, not for the sexual harassment of someone themselves, but because they are unable to adequately punish or warn others of intimidation on their staff – a critical investigation that they certainly would not have come across a few years ago. Even the struggle of Elizabeth Warren to give her an account of having Indian ancestors behind her reflects our rapidly evolving standards of political ethics. Having been brought up to think she was part of Indian descent, she went through life, sporadically identifying as such – only to discover in an altered environment that her thoughtless flirtation with this identity would be considered opportunistic by the right and insensitive by the left.
Which of these politicians will endure their scandals and will be left permanently in disgrace, remains to be seen. The uncertainty about their fate suggests that we are in a time of fluctuating expectations, adopt new norms and reinvent morality. Debates continue with the right sanctions for their actions, because a political culture determines its standards. And just as we think we understand the rules, we have to make sure that they change again.
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