Jesus said to the crowd about to stone a woman to death for committing infidelity, "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone." Well, times have changed. It's getting harder and harder for the sheriff even to round-up a posse willing to throw stones. For Schmekelgate, or "restless penis syndrome" (the name a 2005 "Saturday Night Live" skit gave these indiscretions), the trend toward shoulder shrugging may be less due to moral epiphanies than the telling statistics on infidelity and other sexual indiscretions -- the high incidence of cheating, porno addiction, sexting, and more.
Studies on infidelity have consistently shown that men are much more inclined to stray. But recent surveys say that women are catching up. And if you were to bullhorn an announcement in front of a suburban Washington D.C. motel that the police were about to raid, you could likely watch half- dressed politicians scramble to their cars for quick getaways. Many of our political heroes of the past survived personal indiscretions by fulfilling the eleventh commandment: Thou shall not get caught. The press conspired with a tacit understanding that personal matters were untouchable. But "gotcha" journalism changed that.
1974 was a turning point. That year Congressman Wilbur Mills was stripped of his chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee after news reports detailed his drunken shenanigans with Fanne Fox, a Washington stripper known as the "Argentine Firecracker." Soon after, Congressman Wayne Hays' liaison with Elizabeth Ray was exposed. In a Washington Post story Ray said that she was a secretary for the House Administration Committee, headed by Hays, "despite the fact that "I can't type, I can't file, I can't even answer the phone." For both Mills and Hays the scandals ended their political careers.
After Bill Clinton's Lewinsky affair the public and media sentiment declared that his image was forever tarnished and predicted he would fade into obscurity. Yet today he is one of the most respected elder statesmen. Bring up the subject of his peccadillo with anyone under age forty and you might hear, "Monica who?"
Although public forgiveness and redemption after a brief period of contrition and rehab seems the rule today, historically public condemnation was more typical.
As far back as classical Rome the affairs of Caesar and Cleopatra and Anthony and Cleopatra were scandalous. Even without e-mail or Twitter word got back to Rome, setting off widespread condemnation. Never mind stealing the emperor's girlfriend, playing switch, taking seconds, or openly having children (three by Anthony and one by Caesar), what about betraying their wives and fears of giving away state secrets or territory under love's mesmerizing aphrodisiac? The entire fabric of the Roman Empire shook from these affairs, ultimately leading to war, death, and destruction. Yet what we remember most is the romance celebrated in folklore, theater, and film.
Fast forward almost two millennia to actress Ingrid Bergman and film director Roberto Rossellini. Their 1949 love affair almost brought down their sparkling careers. RKO was financing Bergman's film Stromboli, directed by Rossellini, and when they heard about the adulterous relationship they threatened to cut off the funding. The Motion Picture Association of America urged Bergman to "deny all rumors as soon as possible." Otherwise, they said, her career would almost certainly be over. The press was ruthless in bashing the lovers, especially when Bergman became pregnant by Rossellini. The scandal reached the floor of the U.S. Senate. Senator Edwin C. Johnson of Colorado denounced Bergman, calling her "a free-love cultist" and "a horrible example of womanhood and a powerful influence of evil." He added that she and Rossellini should be banned from American soil. Bergman had to wait in exile until 1972 when Senator Charles Percy of Illinois expressed regrets and invited Bergman to return to America as "a true star in every sense of the word." The public outrage now seems prudish, especially since the affair is remembered as one of the great stylish romances.
My friend Richard Adler, who wrote the words and music to The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees, two of America's greatest Broadway musicals, recalled in his memoir, You Gotta Have Heart, his affair with a famous actress in the 1950's. He feared their illicit liaison would destroy both their careers. He tells about meeting British musical star Sally Ann Howes in London where he was casting for a new play. They began a romance. When they returned to the United States for Howes to star in My Fair Lady, Adler worried that his wife, from whom he was separated and in the process of divorcing, would expose the affair to the press, thus destroying Sally's opportunity to replace Julie Andrews as Eliza Doolittle. He consulted his lawyer, Sidney Cohen, who laughed and said ,"You know what Shakespeare said: 'All the world loves a lover.'" Adler left the office with Cohn's words reverberating in his head. The tune "Everybody Loves a Lover." poured out of him. Doris Day recorded it and it swiftly climbed to number one on the charts.
Adler and Sally married but later divorced. When I attended his last wedding on the lawn of his Southampton, Long Island, summer home I thought of all the people who could whistle many of Adler's famous songs and remember Marilyn Monroe singing "Happy Birthday" to JFK at the gala he produced for the president--but never heard of the "scandal."
So what does all this mean for Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer? History tells us that IF you do good deeds and CONTROL the "restless penis syndrome," time, compassion, changing mores -- and statistics -- will trump Schmekelgate. Unfortunate for Weiner, the latest revelations show that he has violated the control factor; that makes his fate uncertain at best.