Love, Politics and The Media

09/07/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Being a writer, not a politician, I am giving a pass to the obvious political implications in Governor Mark Sanford's disregard for his obligations as governor in not letting his staff know his whereabouts. In this particular piece my emphasis is more on the way women are depicted in these media aired sex scandals.

For some time I have been pondering in my mind: what will happen when a woman politician, since women now are beginning to fill important posts, in our culture of intrusive transparency, has a media aired extra marital affair? Is this a "scandal' waiting in the wings to happen? Are we ready for this? Yes, we know that the Republicans are hypocrites; their "family values" were a mere political ploy meant to reassure their base. Yes, they should apologize for the virtual tar and feathering they gave Bill Clinton, and they should also apologize for the unnecessary suffering they caused Monica Lewinsky. And, yes, Mark Sanford, who demanded Clinton's impeachment, has been one of the most sanctimonious. But we also know that most of our greatest presidents -- Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy among them -- could not have passed the fidelity test. (Roosevelt was with his long time love Lucy Mercer when he died, Kaye Summersby was at Eisenhower's side during his World War II military campaigns, John Kennedy had girlfriends by the dozen, and we all know much too much about Bill Clinton and Monica.)

Yet this year as one by one (more Republicans than democrats) were falling like ten little Indians into public ignominy as their sleazy exploits were revealed, usually with their suffering wives at their side when they mumbled their public mea culpa , the "other woman" (or "other man", if the "other" was gay) was usually portrayed as a sort of sleazy type. Consequently, women have been portrayed as either the victim/wife of a politician or the sordid no-good object of the politician's salacious interest.

So, though we have elevated women to prime political positions, while demanding of them that they have expensive make-overs in order not to be outdone by TV anchor women, that they wear the right clothes and sport good accessories, and that they be super smart (they are also allowed to be a mother and have children), the media has cast these successful female politicians in an odd a-sexual almost maternal role -- they are not allowed to wander off the territory, so far as we know all the wanderings have been done by men.

Then, along came Governor Mark Sanford. The press had a field day reporting that his "mistress" Maria Belen Chapur, was a hot Argentinian number. (In our cold north we imagine our more southerly neighbors to be chock a block with seething sexuality. During this same period the rather sober Judge Sonia Sotomayor, our new Supreme Court judge of Puerto Rican descent, was characterized by some wacky conservative Republicans as "a Latina woman terrorist"-- oh that latin blood!) Now, is mistress really the appropriate description of Maria Belen Chapur? In my mind it is a sort of musty expression more appropriate to the court of the French kings, or an Emile Zola novel, but absurd when used to describe an economically independent woman. (Would we describe Sanford as Maria Belen Chapur's "master'?) Chapur's education included Oxford, she speaks four languages, is divorced, has two children, and is a commodities expert at Bunge & Born, Indeed, other than the unfortunate fact that Sanford is married, these two might have made a logical fit -- they have shared interests and independent careers.

Only a few journalists -- Chris Mathews and the iconoclastic Bill Maher -- seemed able to struggle with the idea, as though the idea itself was a form of a foreign language, that Sanford's problem, the reason he gave such a rambling interview, was that he was a man hopelessly in love. The emails between Maria and Sanford (provided by an email hacker) were old fashioned romantic, indeed demure. Much talk of soul mates. I found it rather touching that unlike Clinton, Sanford didn't throw his Maria under the bus. While making clear in his speech to the media the extent of his involvement with her, he went out of his way to refer to her as his dear, dear friend, his soul mate, the love of his life etc., explaining that the two had known each other eight years before the flames ignited. Then, as a southern Republican conservative politician, he went on to ask for Christian forgiveness, always the third act in these media driven public confessionals. Clearly, his wife and family knew about Sanford's extra marital involvement for at least five months, and were sorting out their -- or his -- decision making when the story, due to the email outings, broke in the press. This romance has little in common with the furtive philanderings of Governor Eliot Spitzer with his high priced hooker, or Senator Larry Craig and his men's bathroom sex solicitation.

But, to go back to my original point, in age of total transparency, when we all know everything about everyone, women politicians will be particularly vulnerable should they stray. They have no secretive house on C street, where, as it has just been revealed, leading politicians, including Sanford, at least Republican ones, can hang out and get some sort of Christian faith, politically oriented counseling when they stray. (At moments like these I am glad I am a Jew. At least we have Woody Allen.) The Christian house on C street sounds like the title one of those grade b spy movies during World War II. And more pertinent, we know that there will be no house on C street for women, no matter what their religious persuasion. In the course of our lives, we women will have many roles, including that of wife, mother, lover, perhaps wronged wife, or perhaps that of the transgressive lover. And to demand special saintliness from our women politicians, is to place them, albeit obliquely, in a second class category. Women decades ago dumped the quaint title of Miss in favor of the more general Ms, now we should also demand that the demeaning descriptive term mistress, which is no way to refer to the modern woman, also be dumped.

Nearly a century ago in The Age of Innocence, set in the New York of her childhood, Edith Wharton accurately foretells Mark Sanford's and Maria Belen Chapur's eternal dilemma -- an affair of the heart, not to be conflated with the sordid. Newland Archer, a product of New York's rigid, puritanical social code, is taken unaware when he falls passionately in love with Countess Olenska, an American woman who had left her husband, and in the eyes of starchy New York society is deemed to be even more louche because she has lived in Paris. To preserve his family, his social standing and career (much as Sanford must), Archer relinquishes the countess and love. That is, the understanding countess relinquishes him. About unhappy marriages, Wharton knew plenty, tied as she was for so long to her mad, syphilitic husband Teddy Wharton. We accept the Scorsese film based on the novel in a way that we don't always accept similar instances in real life, because Scorsese is so talented, Michelle Pfeiffer so beautiful, and Edith Wharton so passionate in the defense of women who go against the social code, and so acute in her perception of how "good" society can destroy women.

Women have made considerable progress, but we are deluding ourselves if we consider the job done. We still need to insist on not being characterized by a condescending vocabulary. Women politicians don't need a secret faith based C house in Washington as a prop, but we women do need to insist on a way of talking and thinking about women in all professions, in all walks of life, that will allow us, including our fallibility, a zone of grace.