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The Sex Life of Presidents

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It's time for a national debate on the sex lives of presidents.

Put it on the table, get it out in the open, talk about what we're talking about.

When we elect a president, are we looking for someone to lead the national monogamy crusade?

Or do we want someone to guide our economy, navigate us through the waters of international war and peace, seek an always saner and more just nation?

Or both?

It is our current practice to be looking for both. During the Clinton years, Republicans made an effort, a very successful one, to link the two with the slogan that "Character matters." As with many things Republican, the labeling is misleading. It does not mean "character matters," because "character" encompasses many qualities.

For example, selling stock when you have 'insider' knowledge that the public does not know, so that you make money and regular share owners bare the loss due to the information you have withheld, is a pretty clear sign of character. It is, more importantly, a sign of the sort of character that truly matters in someone who is going to hold public office. Bush did that at Harken, Cheney did it at Halliburton. Once in office, they ran the government the same way, using public information that was different from their 'insider' information so as to sell their policies. They also used Enron style accounting tricks - keeping costs off the books, manipulating and misstating both income and cost estimates, and so on - to promote public policies.

They were also 'chickenhawks,' cheerleaders for war who had gone to great lengths to avoid going to war themselves. In terms of character, this was a clear signal that they were people who were willing to support policies for which other people would have to pay the price.

I rehash these issues only to make the point that "character matters" does not refer to "character." It refers to sexual monogamy and nothing else.

Let's drag the debate out of the closet. Tell the truth. Does the sex life of a president matter? And if it matters, how does it matter?

Frankly, there are only two presidents who have made me truly curious about their sex lives: Richard Nixon and George W. Bush.

Kennedy's, for example, was exactly what you'd expect from someone who was rich, young, glamorous and powerful. Johnson's was what you'd expect from a poor farm boy who became as rich as a Texas oil millionaire and ten times more powerful. George H.W. Bush is reputed to have had a good, steady mistress on the side, as a proper East Coast patrician ought, and very discrete about it too. Just like Franklin Roosevelt. Then there's Carter (lusted in his heart), Reagan (got enough in his Hollywood years to have settled down?), and Ford (a healthy fellow).

But Nixon? Did Nixon sleep with Pat? With anyone?

Recent documents reveal that Nixon and Kissinger - no, they did not have sex - but they both agreed that Vietnam was lost. Either could have said, we have to get out, and the hell with the political consequences. But they both agreed to stay in, at the cost of thousands more American lives and tens of thousands of Vietnamese lives, until after the next election cycle. Now that's character!

There was something deeply kinked in Nixon. Would more sex - even more adultery - have humanized him? Did his sex life - currently unknown - connect to his murderous cynicism? If the sex lives of presidents are to be a campaign issue, that's a question to ask.

What about the current fellow?

Did he truly become monogamous after his conversion experience? Are he and Laura sexually active? This is the most idle and baseless speculation, but she sure doesn't look like they have a happy bedroom. If they don't, what then is he doing? Who is he sleeping with? Does that influence foreign policy? Is he celibate, and that's what's driving him mad? If he's looking at porn, is he using RNC computers instead of White House ones, so there will be no record? The psychological and psychiatric portraits of Bush that I've read, usually say that he is sadistic. Is that manifest in his sex life?

The liberal point of view is liberal; that a wide variety of sexual choices are perfectly fine, that a person's private life is private, and that it is separate from their public actions. This gives Republicans a huge political advantage. It gives them a weapon - attack a person's sex life, directly or through innuendo and whispering campaigns - that Democrats generally won't use because they think it's irrelevant or unfair or that it's not really a problem.

Liberals (leftists, Democrats, realists, sensible people) have to ask themselves, do they want to let Republicans (rightwingers, conservatives, neo-cons, the religious right) to have that weapon, while they are unilaterally disarmed?

The long term way is to change the game. To encourage and relentlessly push the study of presidential sex lives and their connection to - or utter disconnect from - political performance.

The short term response - according to the book of Karl Rove - is to attack their strength. This is not a job for candidates by the way, it's a job for surrogates. Point number one is that the Republican Party is the party of sexual hypocrites, serial adulterers, patrons of prostitutes, and gays in the closet. Also, a case can be made that Republicans are so sex obsessed that they become sex addled, and they let their obsession with sex, sex, sex, override their good sense about economics, foreign policy, national security, safety, education, war and peace. Accuse them, early and often, of making way too much of sex. So often, that it becomes conventional wisdom. Then, any time it comes up, the response will be, oh, there they go again with their weird, hypocritical obsession with sex. Do it until they become afraid to mention sex, in the same way that Democrats, from being accused of being weak on national security, became politically terrified of opposing even the stupidest, most illegitimate war in American history. Learn from Rove, and decades of Republican politicking, if even good impulses can be demonized, certainly stupid ones can be too.