Infidelity: The Achilles Heel of All Politicians?

All successful American politicians need to have a strong command of the ever-changing and powerful “new media” that has recently encapsulated the United States (US) in an attempt to avoid being ostracized by the public, as demonstrated by Hillary Clinton and Newt Gingrich.

However, not every American political figure caught in a sex scandal has been able to navigate the challenges of their exposure. New York Congressman, Anthony Weiner, found himself in the public spotlight twice for having an affair. It was discovered that he sent sexually explicit pictures to six different women over a period of three years. He was eventually sentenced to 21 months in prison after it was discovered that he was sexting with a 15-year-old girl. This marked the end of his career and his marriage. He failed to steer the situation towards a positive outcome.

Former Minnesota Senate Majority Leader, Amy Koch, who was involved with a former member of her staff named Michael Brodkorb, was forced to leave office after the affair was made public. Her inappropriate relationship with a subordinate staff member ended her marriage and she chose not to run for re-election. Unlike Koch, former Louisiana Senator, David Vitter, salvaged his political career despite his affair with Deborah Jeane Palfrey, which ended his marriage. Vitter won the support of voters even after the scandal and succeeded in his re-election campaign though he left office after losing his bid for the Louisiana governorship in 2015. Vitter partially succeeded in maneuvering the situation. The Senate Ethics Committee never accused him of misconduct while in office and he avoided criminal charges.

Self-proclaimed “Sheriff of Wall Street” and New York Governor, Eliot Spitzer, resigned from office and saw his marriage fall apart as a result of his $80,000 investment in lavish sex workers associated with the Emperors Club VIP. Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s 14,000 instances of sexting had a deleterious impact on his career and earned him four months in jail after it was discovered that he had an affair with his former chief-of-staff, Christine Beatty.

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One of the most vocal critics of Bill Clinton’s affairs with Lewinsky was Helen Chenowith-Hage, who demanded a greater degree of morality from politicians in American government and also called for Clinton’s resignation. Ironically, she would come to relate to Clinton’s unfortunate position as it was discovered that the Congresswoman had a six-year affair with a married man who would eventually find employment on her congressional staff. It was later emphasized that she was involved with another woman’s husband before she became an elected official and while she was single.

Mark Sanford had a dalliance with an Argentinian journalist. He maneuvered his own mess rather well, despite having to resign from his position as Governor of South Carolina, winning a seat in the House of Representatives. Some American politicians succeed in maintaining their fidelity in the first and even second marriages, Rudi Giuliani, however, was not able to make it through his third marriage without being unfaithful. The former New York City Mayor and key member of President Donald Trump’s legal team, Giuliani was confronted by the media about his infidelity and would later proudly state that cheating is something that “everybody does.”

Nearly 30 years ago, during Bill Clinton’s 1992 Presidential campaign, allegations surfaced about Bill’s infidelity and in order to save his presidential bid, the couple participated in a 60 Minutes interview to combat the rumors. Hillary, seemingly unaware of the potential setbacks her interview would cause her, contrasted herself with country singer Tammy Wynette by stating “you know, I’m not sitting here, some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette…” when ironically, Hillary would stand by Bill through multiple infidelity allegations for almost three decades after the interview.

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Although Hillary’s performance essentially saved Bill’s campaign, her attitude toward their marital struggles painted her as a weak and reactionary woman who was in constant denial and was harmful to the ongoing movement of women’s empowerment, which was partly responsible for her 2008 and 2016 Presidential defeats. With Bill’s next large scandal emerging in 1998 with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, Hillary, again, was unable to contain her true feelings when talking to the media where she called Lewinsky a “narcissistic loony toon” which later emerged in 2014 when Clinton began considering running for President again. Clinton, due to her continued hatred and aggressiveness towards Lewinsky, as well as her stated belief that Bill had not committed an “abuse of power” through his affair with Monica, when in fact he had, has led to Hillary being overshadowed by Bill’s negatively perceived extramarital affairs due to the media’s recent rise in demand and influence, thus aiding in her multitude of political defeats.

Newt Gingrich, in comparison to Mrs. Clinton, used his infidelity struggles and increased media attention to quickly relate to Americans. Newt, after publicizing his infidelity with his first wife, who was then undergoing cancer treatment, quickly repented for his sins and turned to Christianity to attempt to prove that he had matured and understood how wrong his actions were. Gingrich also took it upon himself to take all the blame for the mismanagement of his marriage, unlike Mrs. Clinton who instead blamed Lewinsky for her marital troubles. Gingrich, thirdly, was quick to comment on Clinton’s impeachment while he himself was having another extra-marital affair by promptly stating “I admitted I had problems. I admitted that I sought forgiveness.”

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By quickly taking the blame for his actions, Gingrich limited the media’s outcry and instead, turned to other more serious tribulations and focused his attention on those, such as Clinton’s impeachment trial, helping limit the media’s focus on him. Lastly, Gingrich, in comparison to the Clinton’s, blamed his extramarital affairs on his overall determination to serve the American people and attempt to better his country. Gingrich stated that, “sometimes you just feel so passionate about America that you need to go have some extramarital affairs. We’ve all been there.”

By appealing to the American populace through his use of media by emphasizing both his religious and nationalistic viewpoints, as well as accepting the blame for his affairs, Newt showcased how a negative event can be positively manipulated with the help of the American media, leading to very little public backlash. This heavily contrasted Hillary’s attempts at denying the allegations, which demonstrate why her reproving rhetoric about Bill’s affairs seriously hurt her politically as she is still unable to evade the media’s attention on the subject and change the public’s opinion about the affair, showcasing how strong of an influence the media has on public opinion.


*This op-ed was co-authored with Sarah J. Clifford. She is the primary author.

Sarah J. Clifford is a graduate student at the University of Copenhagen (Denmark), studying Political Science with a focus on international relations and gender. Her research explores the intersections of American militarized masculinities, identity politics, and education policies through a post-structuralist lens.

Posted in Freedoms.