I’m Sorry I Got Caught
A CultureMap®
by James Waller
Published on 1/6/14

Men are skunks, and alpha males who attain high political office are sometimes the skunkiest of all. Whether the transgressors apologize, half-apologize or don’t apologize, their behavior stinks. As continuing revelations of politicians’ “indiscretions” remind us, infidelity may be the only truly bipartisan pursuit. It’s as good a time as any to look at a few of the recent smelly messes that elected leaders—Republican and Democrat, straight and gay—have made.

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Bill Clinton  (b. 1946 | U.S. president)
to  Larry Craig  (b. 1945 | American politician)

“I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” That whopper, delivered by President Bill Clinton at a January 1998 press conference, would come back to haunt him. In August 1998 a doleful Clinton admitted his wrongdoing in a nationally televised address: “I did have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate.” Among Clinton’s congressional detractors during the Lewinsky affair was Senator Larry Craig, Republican of Idaho, who in a 1999 Meet the Press interview characterized the president as “a nasty, bad, naughty boy.”

Had the pot called the kettle black? In summer 2007 news broke that Craig had been arrested in a Minneapolis–St. Paul airport men’s room on charges of sexually soliciting an undercover security officer. Like Clinton, Craig responded with denial: Not only had his arrest been a mistake (the officer had misinterpreted Craig’s “wide stance”), but the rumors that he was homosexual, which had dogged Craig for years, were untrue. “I am not gay; I never have been gay,” he definitively declared.

Unlike Clinton, Craig (who left office in 2009) never had to publicly retract his denial. Whether his assertion of innocence—and heterosexuality—was truthful, however, is another question entirely.

Jim McGreevey  (b. 1957 | former New Jersey governor)
to  Larry Craig  (b. 1945 | American politician)

“I am a gay American”: With these words New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey leapt out of the closet during his televised resignation speech on August 12, 2004. As his wife, Dina Matos McGreevey, stood beside him, he apologized for “shamefully” engaging “in an adult consensual affair with another man, which violate[d] my bonds of matrimony.” McGreevey did not reveal in the speech that the other man, a former aide named Golan Cipel, was threatening to sue him for sexual harassment. Although the lawsuit never materialized, Cipel still maintains that he was McGreevey’s victim, not his lover.

Dina McGreevey didn’t stand by her on-the-down-low hubby for long. They separated in 2005 and divorced in 2008, after battling over custody of their daughter and authoring dueling memoirs about their life together. McGreevey launched a new career as an Episcopal seminarian (he has graduated from divinity school but has not been ordained). Despite lingering questions about the events leading up to his resignation, McGreevey looks heroic to some in the gay community for having come out so forthrightly. This puts him in sharp contrast with Idaho senator Larry Craig, who categorically denies engaging in sex with men, despite rumors to the contrary.

Eliot Spitzer  (b. 1959 | American politician)
to  Jim McGreevey  (b. 1957 | former New Jersey governor)

Although neither New York’s Eliot Spitzer nor New Jersey’s Jim McGreevey had had a trouble-free governorship before a sex scandal brought him down, both were reform-minded leaders who might otherwise have accomplished much during the rest of their administrations and, perhaps, beyond. That’s one of the problems with political sex scandals and the resignations that often follow: They can rob the system of political talent.

The loss of Spitzer and McGreevey to politics raises the question: Should citizens even care about political leaders’ sexual behavior, as long as their behind-closed-doors high jinks are legal and consensual and as long as the officials are doing their job? The sex scandals of 2011 indicated the answer may be yes, such behavior should matter. New York congressman Anthony Weiner’s photo-illustrated Internet flirtations with several female admirers amounted to minor moral infractions, but the activity—and his initial repeated denials of it—seriously impugned Weiner’s judgment and integrity. At the other end of the bad-behavior spectrum, French politician and International Monetary Fund director Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s arrest on charges of attempted rape—and ensuing allegations of his prior mistreatment of women—caused soul-searching among French citizens regarding their traditionally laissez-faire attitude toward officials’ private lives.

Eliot Spitzer  (b. 1959 | American politician)
to  John Edwards  (b. 1953 | American politician)

When F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “There are no second acts in American lives,” he could have had former senator and presidential candidate John Edwards in mind. The revelations that Edwards betrayed his wife, Elizabeth, while she was battling incurable cancer and engaged in elaborate cover-up schemes seem sins far too grave for Edwards ever to regain public acceptance.

On the other hand, Eliot Spitzer, who resigned as New York governor in March 2008 after revelations of his involvement as a client in a prostitution ring, disproves Fitzgerald’s statement. The scope of Spitzer’s extracurricular activity was shocking: By some reports, he had spent upwards of $80,000 on call girls over several years.

Spitzer’s career in the public arena appeared to be finished—a pitiful conclusion, given his achievements as a prosecutor and as New York state attorney-general before he became governor. But by late 2008 Spitzer had begun crafting a comeback, first as an op-ed writer, then as a columnist for Slate.com and a guest on politically oriented talk shows like The Colbert Report. The strategy succeeded: By mid-2010, he’d been hired by CNN to host a political talk show, Parker Spitzer, eventually In the Arena (now cancelled).

Eliot Spitzer  (b. 1959 | American politician)
to  Mark Sanford  (b. 1960 | American politician)

In 2008 New York governor Eliot Spitzer promptly resigned after his whoremongering habits were revealed. But officials caught with their pants down needn’t feel obligated to leave office, as the case of South Carolina governor Mark Sanford proves.

From June 18 to June 24, 2009, Governor Sanford disappeared. No one—not his staff, not his family—knew where he was, and attempts to contact him failed. Before vanishing, he’d told staffers he would be “hiking the Appalachian Trail.” That phrase quickly entered the lexicon as a euphemism for adultery, for it turned out Sanford had been in Buenos Aires, hooking up with an Argentine woman, Maria Belén Chapur, whom he later described as his “soul mate.”

At a press conference on his return, Sanford blandly apologized for the “hurt” he’d caused. He resigned his leadership of the Republican Governors Association but did not resign the governorship. Although he was eventually censured for misuse of public funds, efforts to impeach him ran aground, and he successfully served out his term. In 2013 he was elected to Congress, but his marriage to Jennifer Sullivan Sanford was burnt toast; they divorced in 2010. Spitzer’s marriage to Silda Wall ended in late 2013.

Newt Gingrich  (b. 1943 | American politician)
to  John Edwards  (b. 1953 | American politician)

Newt Gingrich—former House speaker and a candidate for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination—has been married three times. Each of his breakups was preceded by an extramarital affair with the woman who would become the next Mrs. Gingrich. Newt reportedly dumped his first wife, Jackie, by telling her he wanted a divorce while she was in the hospital recovering from surgery.

Gingrich has denied that widely disseminated story, but even if it’s true, his behavior falls short of John Edwards’s on the caddishness scale. While campaigning for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, Edwards carried on a secret relationship with Rielle Hunter, a videographer hired to document his campaign. In 2007, when word of the affair began to leak, Edwards denied the allegation and engaged in a cover-up. Even after admitting to the liaison in the summer of 2008, Edwards continued to lie, claiming the baby girl Hunter had given birth to that February was not his child. He even convinced a married staffer, Andrew Young, to claim paternity. What made Edwards’s infidelity especially odious was that his wife, Elizabeth—his closest advisor and a widely admired figure on the American political scene—was terminally ill at the time.

Bill Clinton  (b. 1946 | U.S. president)
to  Newt Gingrich  (b. 1943 | American politician)

While Democratic president Bill Clinton and Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich were publicly battling over the federal budget in 1995—a dispute that led to a U.S. government shutdown—each was also engaging in some private hanky-panky. Clinton’s dalliances with White House intern Monica Lewinsky commenced on November 15, 1995, just after the shutdown began. Meanwhile, Gingrich, then married to his second wife, Marianne, was in the middle of a years-long illicit relationship with Capitol Hill aide Callista Bisek, who in 2000 would become his third wife.

The Lewinsky affair ultimately led to Clinton’s impeachment. (The charges against Clinton did not involve the affair itself but his lying about it to a grand jury.) In a fascinating footnote, his predicament inspired two top House Republicans, Henry Hyde of Illinois and Robert Livingston of Louisiana, to make self-defensive public confessions of their own marital infidelities—but not Gingrich, who had spearheaded the congressional effort to indict the president. Gingrich’s own confession came much later: In a 2007 interview with Christian evangelical radio host James Dobson, he acknowledged having “fallen short of my own [and God’s] standards” by cheating on both of his first two wives.