Sexy Political Scandals

Before listening to the latest episode of Radio Lab over the weekend, I’d never heard of Gary Hart. Poor guy might have been president if the American public and media hadn’t suddenly taken an interest in his sex life. Sorry buddy. That was terrible timing for you.

As hosts Jad and Robert point out early on in the show, we’ve become accustomed to having front-row seats to politicians’ sexual exploits. Apparently this hasn’t always been the case: they revisit Hart’s story as a key turning point in our political history.

Curiously, in this episode is they point out that the media was, in many ways, just catching up with the general public. Politicians have been having affairs for as long as we’ve had politicians, but the media wasn’t reporting on it because of unwritten rules about privacy and assumptions about relevancy. The number one factor cited in this podcast for the turning point is Watergate: what we all remember as a very good reason to challenge how the moral character of a person impacts their ability to do their job. I’d say we were spot on with that one. (Honestly, Nixon. You’re such an embarrassment.)

What no one interviewed in this story mentioned was the turning tide of sexual politics concurrent with these other events. A couple of political commentators mentioned the role of women in media and their willingness to expose Hart’s womanizing ways, but that’s as close as they got to what I would deem a hugely significant factor. In her book, Delirium, Nancy L. Cohen documents the sexual counterrevolution in the United States over the last several decades. This is the time period in which we see major, major backlash against feminism and women, against abortion and Planned Parenthood, and the rise of the ultra-conservative religious right as embodied in groups like Focus on the Family and in cultural phenomena like the purity movement (embodied, for example, in True Love Waits).

It’s never just one thing or another, of course. It’s all of these factors and more. But it’s no coincidence that that the political and social tide was turning in the 70s, 80s and that Hart’s downfall was specifically sexual in nature.

What are your thoughts? Give it a listen and let me know!




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