Call it "an affair to remember", in English, "une liaison dangereuse", if you're French, or as the Dutch say, "pinching the cat in the dark". Whatever the nomenclature, adulterous affairs are nothing new in the western culture. But never have they been more prominent or public among American politicians than in recent years, and none has created more of a stir than that of Eliot Spitzer, the now former Governor of New York (NY), whose involvement with a high-priced prostitution ring reverberated around the world.
Spitzer was NY State Attorney General before becoming Governor. He made his name fighting corporate corruption, and busting prostitution rings. That's why the revelation that for years he had allegedly been transferring substantial sums of money from his personal accounts in order to pay for very expensive call-girls came as a shock to those with high hopes for his political future as well as the general public. Spitzer's downfall was swift and sad, most especially for his unsuspecting wife and three teenage daughters. But it was not unprecedented.
American men in high places have been shocking their constituents and loyal supporters for years. It is well known that Franklin Delano Roosevelt had a much-loved mistress, and that John F. Kennedy had extra-marital affairs. In fact, hardly an American president has escaped rumors of extracurricular activity while in the White House. And, of course, Bill Clinton was famous for "not [having] sex with that woman" during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. This year's presidential aspirants have their own share of sexual history.
The former governor of New York, Rudy Guiliani, married the woman with whom he had a much-publicized affair and John McCain, the Republican nominee, courted his wife Cindy, while still married to his first wife.
Among others, presidential candidate Gary Hart met his comeuppance in the 1970s when he was "outed" for his affair, and for the overt self-sabotage inherent in its discovery. (Both Spitzer and Clinton also exhibited a penchant for getting caught.) Then there are the lesser politicians like Kwame Kilpatrick, Mayor of Detroit, who was caught in a sex scandal recently, or Mike Allen, a former Ohio prosecutor who dropped his plans to run for re-election when his adulterous affair was revealed. One of the biggest shockers recently occurred when Senator Larry Craig (R-Idaho) was arrested for soliciting gay sex in an airport men's room. And then there was the recent case of the Governor of New Jersey, Jim McGreevey, who revealed his homosexuality with his (now ex) wife Dina at his side. Later allegations included the fact that the governor and his wife had earlier engaged in a 'menage a trois'.
Such behavior isn't exclusive to Americans. Recently, Russian tabloid 'Moskovsky Korrespondent' published a story claiming that President Vladimir Putin had left his wife for 24-year-old former Olympic gymnast Alina Kabayeva. However, Putin categorically denied claims made by the tabloid that he was planning to marry former rhythmic gymnast who is currently the State Duma Deputy. Now, the owner of the tabloid - Artyom Artyomov of National Media Company - has suspended its publications, while its editor-in-chief, Grigory Nekhoroshev, has resigned in the wake of the 'unsubstantiated' report.
Then, there is the incidence of Tehran's chief of police, who resigned after being caught in 'delicto flagrante' in a local brothel. In Germany, a prominent labor leader was jailed for accepting millions in bonuses, which he allegedly spent on prostitutes. On a less tawdry note, France has a rich history of politician's peccadilloes. Francois Mitterand was well known to have two families simultaneously and current President Nicolas Sarkozy left his open marriage to marry his present wife, Carla, a supermodel and songstress.
But, perhaps because they don't share the European heritage of royal families in which loveless political marriages were augmented by affairs, Americans obsess over adultery. With their Puritan roots and secret passion for scandal, they endlessly dissect the sordid stories that swirl around politicians. As one social commentator put it in a recent editorial quoted by 'The New Yorker Magazine', "Eliot Spitzer... was hounded into resignation by a Puritanism and mean-spiritedness that are quintessentially American."
Others might argue that the American obsession with sex scandals emanates from a more compassionate perspective. Since the Spitzer story broke, the press has printed copious articles and editorials in support of long-suffering wives, and has sought to understand the psychology behind a syndrome that seems to be pervasive among powerful men in high political places.
Here is columnist Katha Pollitt writing in 'The Nation': "Just once I'd like to see a male politician caught in a sex scandal stand up there at the press conference all by himself. ...saying the words, 'I could never live with myself if I let [my wife] humiliate [her]self in public to help my career.'" Or as Eugene Robinson, a writer in 'The Washington Post' put it, "You look at [Mrs. Spitzer's] lifeless eyes and her expressionless mouth and you think: Look what he's done to that poor woman."
However, the essential question in everyone's mind is why do so many highly successful men, and in particular politicians, commit adultery? Is it male prerogative, political power, or a sense of entitlement and immunity? Is there a syndrome that makes men at the pinnacle take risks, betray their families and disappoint their followers? Professionals and pundits suggest various answers.
Michael Gigante, a clinical psychologist in Brattleboro, Vermont, posits that men like Spitzer et al are "experimenting with and testing themselves in relation to the great power they are vested with." Their behavior, he says, "is adolescent-like. Normally, as we go through adolescence, struggling with and coming into relationship with our power, we also develop a false sense of invulnerability, until we get hurt enough. So in a way, these men are not engaging in risk-taking behavior because they see themselves as invulnerable, even though they may know at some level that this isn't true." Gigante adds that "sex is an outlet and a symbol of power, what Henry Kissinger once called 'the ultimate aphrodisiac.'"
The male psyche, he concludes, is conditioned to struggle with power.
"Ultimately the mature male comes to understand that power is an internal experience - power to be in charge of one's personal experience rather than power to be in control of external forces."
Whatever the cause of adultery in high places, Americans have typically created an industry around it. Sometimes called "the marriage-industrial complex," couples therapists, support groups, seminars and healing weekends are thriving in the U.S. Many of these groups are led by so-called "reformed cheaters" in partnership with their spouses. The website 'Surviving Infideliy.com' caters to couples striving for healing and continuity, largely through truth-telling. As one critic put it recently in 'The New York Times', "We Americans are particularly preoccupied with honesty. We're the only country that peddles the idea that 'it's not the sex, it's the lying.' America is also the only place that has a one-strike rule on fidelity: if someone cheats, the marriage is kaput."
One thing seems clear: In a country like the U.S. where nearly half of marriages end in divorce, there can't be many surprises left as to the cause of marital discord, at least among political families. There, adultery and other forms of sexual acting out are rife. In the current climate, no one would dare call that a lie.