The Personal Misdeeds of Public Figures: An Immoral Story

January 30, 2012

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“I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” The 1998 Monica Lewinsky scandal irreparably damaged President Bill Clinton’s image as a faithful family man. Despite this, Clinton’s approval rating soared to its peak–69%–in the wake of the scandal.

Stories of adultery in American politics are commonplace. Some politicians frequent call girls, others prey on interns, still others take to Twitter. The ongoing race for the GOP nomination has not been without its own revelations of infidelity. Former presidential hopeful Herman Cain dropped out of the race after an onslaught of sexual harassment and possible affair allegations marred his reputation.

Newt Gingrich and current wife/former mistress, Callista. | Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons.

Most recently, potential GOP candidate Newt Gingrich is battling his own infidelity-related scandal. His ex-wife of nearly twenty years, Marianne Gingrich, has stepped forward to speak about her husband’s affair with his now-wife, Callista, and his request for an “open marriage.”

The Gingrich campaign extols family values, so accusations such as Marianne’s have the power to make a hypocrite out of him. Many politicians have been known to give into temptation–high off of power, seduced by money, weakened by lust. They deign to personal behavior that’s at the very least questionable, and at worst base and narcissistic. But what’s it to the American people? Is a man who seeks to be the face of America allowed separate sets of standards in his public and personal lives? Or do Americans just care about the facts, excusing personal problems and placing sole emphasis on political viewpoints?

A bit can be deduced from the fact that Clinton’s approval rating peaked just after the Monica Lewinksy revelations. Despite his initial denial of an affair, Clinton’s proclamations of guilt, regret and embarrassment seemed to have pleased the American public. In fessing up, he took responsibility for his actions, realigning himself morally and therefore regaining the people’s approval. Americans do not condone adultery, but they do appreciate honesty.

For candidates like Newt Gingrich, the tenuous path to presidency means maintaining the favor of supporters and working to gain more. How much does Gingrich need to worry about what his supporters think of his infidelity? According to CAS Dean Virginia Sapiro, who specializes in political psychology, the answer is not that much. If people agree strongly with a candidate’s political ideology, they’ll make excuses for their personal failings.

“Candidates’ personal behavior, whether it has to do with their sexual behavior, drinking or drug use, their financial or business lives, or religious behavior, has different effects on different parts of the public, largely related to whether the public is already inclined to support them publicly,” Dean Sapiro said.  “So you see conservatives who thought President Clinton’s sexual behavior disqualified him from being president excusing Newt Gingrich’s behavior–and probably the reverse–and people who emphasize ‘family values’ ignoring the picture-perfect qualities of President Obama’s current family.” Cynical though it may seem, the relationship between a personally immoral politician and his supporters can evolve into one of mutual hypocrisy.

In the wake of a scandal, it seems the most efficient course of action for a politician is to admit guilt, move on and hope supporters do, too. “When candidates are caught in a public opinion riptide because of their personal behavior, they have to look first to their political base to see how they are reacting,” Dean Sapiro said. “There’s no point spending political capital to get people who don’t like you politically to change their mind about you personally.” Marianne Gingrich’s accusations may alienate some of her ex-husband’s supporters, but in all likelihood, they won’t deter those who really want him to win the GOP candidacy. The moral of the immoral story: our politicians may not be loyal to their wives, but we sure are loyal to them.