Can a man who cheats on his wife be trusted with public business?
In the recent Iowa Republican debate, Governor Rick Perry of Texas attacked Newt Gingrich's admitted infidelities. "If you will cheat on your wife, if you will cheat on your spouse, then why wouldn't you cheat on your business partner?" Perry's inability to recall the government agencies he would to eliminate has already shown that he is not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree. But his latest statement betrays not bad memory but bad judgment.
An important fact I have learned from the numerous couples I have counseled, as well as from the events and lives of historical figures, is that private betrayal does not necessarily imply public dishonesty. First, the impulses for each are very different. For the most part a man cheats on his wife not because he wishes to be deceptive or even to obtain sex. Rather, he cheats out of a sense of brokenness and out of desperation to feel desirable. If sex was what he was truly craving, he would have it with his wife. Rather, men with deep-seated insecurities feel the need to be desirable to the opposite sex. In fact, of the estimated 50% of married men who cheat on their spouses, 48% of men surveyed in this demographic claimed that emotional dissatisfaction was the main driving force behind their affairs, as my colleague Gary Neuman shows in his book, The Truth about Cheating: Why Men Stray and What You Can Do to Prevent It. Many of these men sadly find it easier to open up about their feelings and concerns to their mistresses than their wives because they are cheating primarily out of a sense of failure and pain. The mistress makes them feel successful and soothes their agony. So why can't their wives do the same? As I explain in my book The Broken American Male, the man who sees himself as a loser will view the woman dumb enough to marry him as a loser squared. It is specifically the stranger who has made no commitment to him -- the woman who has not allied herself with failure -- that can assuage his macerated ego. Hence, men who are often otherwise honest in every other area of life still have affairs. Cheating on your wife is a terrible sin and a horrible violation of a marriage. But it does not mean that the person cheating will be a crook in the rest of his life or a failed public servant, as indeed some of our greatest presidents have demonstrated.
Thomas Jefferson had a sexual relationship with Sally Hemmings, a slave he owned who may have had no choice in the matter. Though he had already lost his wife for a number of years before this relationship began, his actions in this regard are still deeply troubling. Yet, he remains the author or our independence and one of the principal founders of our nation. Franklin Roosevelt saved the world from Hitler. But he could not save his marriage after his infidelity with Lucy Mercer, which left his wife Eleanor romantically cold to him till the day he died. John Kennedy is remembered as one of modern history's most inspiring leaders. Yet the ego gratification he required from women is legend, and the same was true of Lyndon Johnson. LBJ's compassion for America's poor which led him to promote the Great Society and to expand school lunch programs did not prevent the pain he caused his wife with his repeated infidelities.
The fact that so many males in office are guilty of cheating should not surprise us. Personal struggles with self esteem that drive numerous politicians to seek validation from the electorate are many times the same force that drives their need to feel desirable to women. Yet this does detract from the immense good that they are able to do with their lives. It was Aristotle who said, "No great genius has ever existed without some touch of madness."
Conversely, the irony of the secure and content man is that, since he feels comfortable in his own skin and is satisfied with his place in the world, he often achieves less professionally because he has less to prove. He does, however, sleep much better at night, and happily with the woman he married, even though he may have fewer accomplishments than his colleagues who are consumed with feelings of inadequacy.
For those like Governor Perry who believe that men who cheat on their wives are not to be trusted in the public sector, I remind them of men like Richard Nixon. He appears to have never strayed from his marriage vows to his wife Pat, whom he loved deeply, though that had little bearing on whether or not he always told the truth to the American public. Likewise, I would be shocked if a man as disciplined as President Obama has ever been unfaithful to his wife, whom he genuinely loves and respect. But with the moribund state of the economy, the high jobless rate, and his inability to effect any meaningful change in Iran's race to become a nuclear power, his effectiveness as a family man has not translated into effectiveness as a President.
I personally never much cared for the press coverage of what transpired between Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky and found the whole episode tawdry and possessing little redeeming public value. Yes, it is sad that with his actions Bill Clinton caused great pain to his wife as well as substantial disruption to the nation. But Clinton's great disappointment as a president was his failure to kill Osama bin Laden when he was presented with several opportunities to do so and, of even greater significance, his inaction in the face of the genocide in Rwanda. The fact that an American president in an age of mass communication did not even have a single meeting with his senior staff to stop the quickest slaughter of innocents in world history -- 330 dying every hour and 800,000 dying in three months -- is a far greater stain on his presidency than anything left on a dress.
Newt Gingrich made terrible mistakes in his marriage and has acknowledged his need to repent. But none of that has compromised his phenomenal moral clarity on issues like identifying Hamas and Fatah as being nearly identical in their mutual support for terror acts against Israeli civilians or their unbridled hostility to Israel. I cannot say the same of President Obama whose private moral commitment to his family is sterling, but whose foreign policy allows Assad of Syria to continue to slaughter his people and who pressures Israel to make concessions to terror organizations sworn to its destruction.
And it is here that my evangelical brothers and sisters like Rick Perry can learn something from Judaism. While Christians emphasize the perfection of Christ, and utilize the question "What would Jesus do?" in order to judge people by this infallible standard, the Hebrew Bible has not a single perfect man or woman. All make mistakes and all are imperfect, especially in the realm of family. Abraham has a broken relationship with Ishmael. Jacob fractured his children's filial love by favoring one son, and David had the incident with Bathsheba. But each is remembered as a great personality of the Bible and human history because, amid their private failings, they wrestled with their nature to be better and contributed mightily to establishing G-d as a living presence among the earth's inhabitants. The moral: even imperfect people can contribute mightily to the perfection of the world.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach has just published Ten Conversations You Need to Have with Yourself (Wiley) and will shortly publish Kosher Jesus. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley
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