Sex and the city (of Washington)


The resignation of CIA Director David Petraeus over an extramarital affair has raised and will continue to raise a number of questions.

First among them (OK, maybe not first, national security being more important, but stay with me) is why should he have resigned? I am always amused when journalists use the words “sex scandal” when writing about such things. Having abandoned most standards for what used to be called “upright behavior,” culture now “tsk-tsks” when someone is caught in a compromising position.

Bill Clinton didn’t have to resign after the Monica Lewinsky scandal. He lied about their assignations under oath, for which he was later impeached by the House, but not convicted by the Senate. His liaisons in public office were legion, stretching back at least to his time as governor of Arkansas. Petraeus’ dalliance appears to have been a one-off. Is there a different standard, and if so, based on what?

The late Senator Edward Kennedy’s sexual liberalism was well known and he wasn’t forced to resign. In fact, he repeatedly won re-election, despite his predilections. The sexual practices of numerous Republican and Democratic members of Congress over many years have forced some to quit. Others lost elections, but some are still in Congress and have survived whatever wrath remains for such things.

In our anything goes culture, what are the rules for public officials? Avoiding the potential for blackmail is certainly one, which is a crucial issue in the Petraeus matter, as well as whether Paula Broadwell, his biographer and mistress, had access to classified CIA information. In his resignation letter Petraeus cited “poor judgment” as a major reason for quitting. If poor judgment is the standard, rush-hour traffic in Washington would be a lot easier because there would be fewer government officials around clogging up the roads.

Then there is the potential political fallout. Petraeus backed the Obama administration’s timeline for the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, which killed four Americans, and he had been summoned to testify before the House Foreign Affairs Committee about the details, a summons he declined following his resignation. He has since reversed his decision and will now testify. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton won’t be there, though. She has a “scheduling conflict.” Coincidental? Both Clinton and Petraeus should be compelled to tell what they know and when they knew it, or embarrassed by being forced to plead the fifth.

Now, back to sex. Culture promotes all sorts of pre- and extramarital activity as exciting, even commonplace. So how is a high-profile public official to know what is tolerable and what is an offense that can lead to resignation, firing, or impeachment? Divorce is another matter, as most spouses don’t tolerate adultery well.

Wouldn’t it be helpful to have a guidebook? Are there separate guidelines for military and civilian personnel? Should it be tied to one’s security clearance? If the secretary of agriculture, say, is engaged in an adulterous relationship, would that be a lesser offense than adultery by the CIA director, or the secretary of defense? Should one stay in office and the others resign?

What would Carrie Bradshaw advise?

WTOP radio in Washington has compiled a partial list of notorious Washington sex scandals (http://wtop.com/862/3111171/A-scandalous-tour-through-DC) for those interested (and you know you are).

My favorite is the story of Major General Daniel Sickles, a colorful antebellum politician and later Union general during the Civil War. In 1859, when he became aware of his wife’s affair with Philip Barton Key, U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, Sickles ambushed Key in Lafayette Square, across from the White House, shooting and killing him in broad daylight in front of a dozen witnesses.

Sickles’ attorney argued for acquittal based on “temporary aberration of mind.” The jury agreed, Sickles was acquitted and went on to serve the Union bravely, winning a Medal of Honor.

Apparently, standards were a lot different then.

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