The politics of adultery

Senator David Vitter's (R-LA) association with the woman known as the D. C. Madam has touched off another round of journalistic rumination about whether private sins are a public matter. The Washington Post has featured three columns on this issue in the last five days, all by veteran Washington journalists.

E. J. Dionne raised the issue first on July 13, writing:

My defense of Vitter is qualified because I believe that married guys have a moral obligation not to seek the pleasures of "escort services."

Nor do I like hypocrisy. During the battle over the impeachment of Bill Clinton, Vitter wrote in the New Orleans Times-Picayune that if no "meaningful action" were taken against the president, "his leadership will only further drain any sense of values left to our political culture." Vitter, then a state representative, suggested that Clinton was "morally unfit to govern."

But a big part of me is rooting for Vitter to survive because I so want to return to a time when we -- that "we" includes the media -- chose to pay little attention to the extracurricular sexual activities of our politicians. The magnitude of our public problems does not afford us the luxury of indulging in crusades about politicians' private lives, even those involving a high degree of hypocrisy.

David Ignatius visited the subject in a sidelong sort of way two days later, pointing out that in the age of the blog, where anybody can report on anything, it is no longer clear what sorts of conversations and activities are "on" the record:

What are the ground rules of life? Can we assume any "right to privacy" in this digital age when everything we say or do can become part of a permanent record that anyone -- friends, enemies, the government -- can access? With cameras sprouting on every street corner in Washington and New York (and have you checked out your nearest interstate lately?) should motorists just assume that their zone of privacy ends when they leave their driveways?

Privacy isn't what it used to be, certainly. A woman known as the D.C. Madam disseminates her phone records to fight charges that her "escort service" is a prostitution ring. The disclosure exposes a first-term senator named David Vitter. Well, fine, you say, Vitter is a noisy "family values" conservative who should be indicted for hypocrisy if nothing else. But what about the thousands of other people whose phone numbers are on the D.C. Madam's call list? Are they fair game?

But yesterday, Ruth Marcus, announced htat she planend to "opt out of the 'whatever happened to privacy' pity party that's convened in the aftermath of the Sen. David Vitter sex scandal.

She writes:

For some people, adultery itself is disqualifying in a politician. I think marriage is too mysterious an enterprise to go that far. It's hard to know -- and therefore impossible to judge -- what happens inside someone else's marriage. People stray; spouses forgive, or not; that's their business. But paying for sex, in whatever form, is both illegal and repulsive. It reveals a view of women as commodities that is relevant to lawmakers' public responsibilities.

She is wise to point out that many politicians base their stand on issues such as this one on the expediencies of the moment:

One man who has understood the importance of dealing with the demand side is former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, who went after prostitution in the city by targeting customers as well as prostitutes. Under "Operation Losing Proposition," Giuliani's police arrested johns and confiscated their cars. He didn't wring his hands over their lost privacy.

So what does Candidate Giuliani say now -- now that his own marital missteps are campaign fodder, and his southern regional chairman is David Vitter? At a town meeting in New Hampshire last week, Giuliani sounded like my fellow columnists. "I believe," he said, "it's a personal issue."

UPDATE: Newsweek takes a look at the religious and political consequences in Evangelicals and the Vitter Effect.

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