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Robert Brustein

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Sex and the Married Man

Posted: 06/13/11 07:08 PM ET

The media furor over the uncontrollable testosterone of male political figures has been a bottomless source of recent entertainment, particularly on the comedy shows. Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, Lewis Black, Jay Leno, Jimmy Fallon, David Letterman, and all the rest of the gang have been taking the opportunity to mock both the perpetrators and their persecutors, meanwhile displaying a preoccupation with male sexual organs unequaled since Aristophanes. The sexual comedy is hilarious, but one of the drawbacks of such ridicule is that we may soon have very few politicians left who are abstemious enough to get and stay elected.

Not many of us will lament the loss of Newt "Tartuffe" Gingrich's hypocritical swaggering, or the muscle flexing of Arnold "Sperminator" Schwarzenegger (Maureen Dowd's delicious term), or the sanctimonious posturing of John "I Feel Your Pain" Edwards, or the splenetic self-righteousness of Anthony "Wee Willie" Weiner, though the acts they committed were consensual, and therefore different in kind from the behavior, say, of Dominique the Dominator, who may have committed a criminal rape. But when you consider all the political careers wrecked by acts of extra-marital sex, whether Gary Hart's Bimini bimbo, or Elliott Spitzer's Washington call-girl, or Mark Sanford's Argentine amorosa, among others, you can see that being a potent male is often an obstacle to being a potent politician. Bill Clinton managed to become an exception, his hi-jinks and low-jinks with Monica Lewinsky having led to an impeachment, but not to a conviction.

One of the saddest examples of our passion for banishing erring husbands is Elliott Spitzer, whose escapades as Client-9 put a speedy end to his tenure as New York Governor. Sad because one can see by his performance as a commentator on CNN that Spitzer might eventually have become a really impressive statesman. In his media role, he has certainly been displaying an unusual range of knowledge, humanity, courtesy, courage, persistence, and modesty, qualities that are making him, in my opinion, one of the best political commentators of our time. That may not mean much when you look at what today passes for television reporting -- a combination of self-promotion, celebrity chasing, and gotcha journalism. Spitzer is occasionally forced into similar roles himself, especially during the Anthony Weiner scandal when in order to discuss the issue he was forced to concede his own failings as a faithful husband. But based purely on performance, I believe that Spitzer is potentially on a par with Walter Cronkheit, Chet Huntley, Jim Lehrer and Robert MacNeill, perhaps even the legendary Edward R. Murrow.

He reminds us of that Arcadian time when the primary function of the media was to report the news, not chase after scandal -- when people were pretty much unaware that FDR made speeches from a wheelchair, that both he and Eleanor had lovers, that JFK kept multiple mistresses (including Marilyn Monroe whom he probably shared with his brother Bobby), that Mamie was not the only love of Dwight Eisenhower. It was an age of such innocence that Jimmy Carter could lose an election, and be pilloried by the press, simply for admitting that he had lusted in his heart.

As for Elliott Spitzer, the loss to statesmanship is somewhat compensated for by his contributions to television. But CNN's continuing efforts to pair him with a conservative blonde bimbo, plus the fact that he is attracting such meager advertising (especially when compared with the endless commercials on Wolf Blitzer's Situation Room) suggests that he has not been attracting a whole lot of viewers, and low ratings do not augur well for independent journalism.