"Smart . . . smart . . . and stupid." That was my eighty-something-year-old mother's reply when I asked her what she thought of Bill Clinton during the impeachment saga of 1998.
We can now add Anthony Weiner's name to the list of smart, smart and stupid politicians. It's a long list that includes Gary Hart, John Edwards, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dan Crane, Gerry Studds, Eliot Spitzer, Mark Foley, Mark Sanford, Jim McGreevey, John Ensign, Bob Packwood, David Vitter, Eric Massa and Christopher Lee. You might want to throw in John F. Kennedy.
The public's immediate response to such revelations: "What were they thinking?" What is it about the lethal combination of sex and politics that makes so many men "smart, smart and stupid"?
I was talking on the phone to my former editor in New York, who had an interesting observation. He had spent many years in New York City clubhouse politics. His observation: people who go into politics are, by inclination, risk-takers. That's how they advance. They gamble their fortunes and their reputations on the prospect that they can get voters to like them. And to keep on liking them.
What do politics and sexual indiscretion have in common? They are both high-risk activities. My friend noted that, when a man became leader of a political club in New York, he took on sexual allure. Women threw themselves at him. "Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac," Henry Kissinger once said. Having taken a risk and seeing it pay off in their political life, they became more reckless in their personal affairs. Risk-taking begets risk-taking.
Politics is all about risk-taking, which is why it attracts so many men. I will take the risk of perpetuating a gender stereotype by saying this: on the average, men are more likely to be risk-takers than women. Want evidence? Look at the prison population. Prisoners in the United States -- and all over the world -- are ovewhelmingly male. Men are more likely to commit crimes because men are more likely to take risks. Often stupid risks. Like the politicians listed above.
Of course there are women who take risks. Amelia Earhart springs to mind. As does Margaret Thatcher and Golda Meir. And our own Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin. But they are more the exception than the rule. Moreover, sexual scandals are rare among female politicians.
Polls show that men are more likely to favor wars and tough-on-crime policies and "enhanced interrogation" methods and crackdowns on illegal immigrants and bold experiments with the economy. Women are more inclined to vote for safety and security. When the Democrats became the party of the "safety net" in the 1990s, the party consolidated its hold on women voters.
George W. Bush was the ultimate risk-taking politician. We know of no sexual indiscretions. But he himself admitted, ``When I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible." Bush came out of the worlds of sports and business. Those are very male worlds where risk-taking is expected and rewarded.
In his acceptance speech at the 2000 Republican National Convention, Bush ridiculed his opponent, Al Gore, saying, "If my opponent had been there at the moon launch, he would have called it a `risky rocket scheme.' If he had been there when Edison was testing the light bulb, it would have been `a risky anti-candle scheme.'"
Bush concluded, "Every one of the proposals I've talked about tonight, he has called `a risky scheme,' over and over again. It is the sum of his message -- the politics of the roadblock, the philosophy of the stop sign." We remember 2000 as one of the closest elections in American history. But it was really two competing landslides. Bush won by a landslide among men (11 points). Gore won by a landslide among women (11 points).
Bush was true to his word as president. He undertook high-risk policies with the economy (a gigantic tax cut) and with the nation's security (the war in Iraq).
The point is that politics attracts risk-takers. Every time they face the voters, politicians put their careers and their fortunes at risk. Every time they propose a new policy, they are taking a risk. When risk-taking behavior pays off in their political life, they sometimes become more willing to take risks in their personal life. Which makes them smart, smart and stupid.