By Betsy Rothstein - 03/12/08 07:17 PM EDT
Lawmakers have often been thought of as demigods, figures to be revered and people who are supposed to behave better than the rest of us.
Hence the long fall when bad behavior surfaces, as New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D) saw this week as he was busted in a prostitution sting. As he resigned from office Wednesday morning, he channeled Rose Kennedy’s famous phrase: “To whom much is given, much is expected.”
Yet the situation raises the question: Should elected officials be held to a higher standard when it comes to marital fidelity?
“Oh, I think we are,” Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) said Tuesday. Craig pleaded guilty last summer to charges of soliciting sex in a Minnesota airport men’s room. He later tried to fight the charges, but failed.
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who has long weighed in on matters of morality in Congress, even holding seminars for young aides on sexually transmitted diseases, agreed emphatically that lawmakers should be held to a higher standard on matters of faithfulness in marriage.
“I think they should be held to a higher standard on every issue,” said Coburn, who is an obstetrician. He added: “The sad thing about what’s going on is it reconfirms that there aren’t people of great character in positions of leadership. It breeds cynicism.”
Taking a similar view, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said that politicians “inherently” are held to a different standard. “They are leaders in very public professions and are automatically held to a higher standard and should be.”
But some lawmakers say the real issue here is honesty more than anything else.
“The question isn’t about marital infidelity,” said Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.). “The question is honesty. Constituents want honesty. That’s the question at the end of the day.”
Some lawmakers had no desire to weigh in on the latest sex scandal to hit the Beltway. Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), when faced with the question of politicians and marital infidelity, turned cold and replied, “I don’t want to talk about that. We’re talking about that fellow from New York? I don’t want to talk about that.”
Other senators, while expressing outrage, said that lawmakers and ordinary people alike should be held to the same high standards.
“They just should be held to common decency,” remarked Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.). “To a higher standard? No, they should be held to a standard of common decency and Mr. Spitzer has failed that on every account.”
Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo.) backed him, saying, “Married people ought to be faithful, whether an elected official or whatever.”
Tasha Cunningham, creator of Dontdatehimgirl.com, a site that allows women to post information and pictures about men who cheat on them, believes Spitzer and other politicians who have cheated on their spouses would be ideal contributions to her site. But then again, she says, the whole world knows what these lawmakers have done.
“I think probably Mrs. Spitzer should put him on there at some point,” Cunningham said in a phone interview from Miami, where she lives. “My heart goes out to her and her situation. A woman’s life has been completely shattered by this. I can understand the kind of pain she must be in.”
Cunningham said politicians must be held to a higher standard on marital infidelity. But she added: “At the end of the day, these guys are just men; instinctively and inherently they have the instincts of a man and they think they are powerful and can do everything they want.” She noted that forums on her site have involved men who don’t agree with women on what cheating is, which brings former President Bill Clinton to mind.
“President Bill Clinton said he didn’t have sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky,” Cunningham noted. “Some [attached] guys think there is nothing wrong with going to a strip club and getting a lap dance.”
She said her site is protected by the federally passed Communications Decency Act, under which website owners are not held liable for third-party content posted on their sites.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) had a different spin on the notion that politicians should be better than the regular population. “Roughly the same standard that journalists should be,” he said dryly.
And Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) took a more practical approach: “It’s up to the voters. I’m not married, so maybe it’s easier for me to say that.”
While politicians have often claimed that family is personal and off limits to the media, many know that public life doesn’t always cater to this plan.
“I think politicians should be held to a higher standard in everything,” said Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). But he added, “Everyone ought to try to live up to our standards.”
Kris Kitto contributed to this story.