They flare across the stratosphere like fiery meteors, so many of them now that they collide in our consciousness, their reflected light blinding us all.
What was once rare, naughty, and delicious—a sex scandal!—has now become a cultural commonplace, sometimes entertaining, often sickening. John Edwards goes on trial next month for allegedly funneling campaign money to his mistress while his wife, Elizabeth, was dying—but that spectacle might soon be eclipsed by an investigation of another 2008 presidential candidate. A federal grand jury is examining whether supporters of Bill Richardson funneled $250,000 in payoffs to a one-time state employee who was going to allege an affair with the former New Mexico governor.
The 2012 campaign has its own scandal sweepstakes, with Newt Gingrich—who famously had an affair with the woman who’s now Wife No. 3 while leading the drive to impeach Bill Clinton—overshadowed by Herman Cain, who has ricocheted from denying four sexual harassment claims to denying a 13-year extramarital affair with a woman he admits to helping financially. And this has become a global stage, with Dominique Strauss-Kahn disgraced by a sexual encounter with a Manhattan hotel maid that she describes as an assault.
The sports world, once a welcome distraction from serious business, is producing its own nauseating narratives. First the country is stunned by allegations that Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky sodomized a 10-year-old boy in the showers and that others, including an eyewitness and the legendary Joe Paterno, did nothing. Then, in the blink of a news cycle, the spotlight swings to Syracuse University basketball coach Bernie Fine, accused of abusing a former ball boy whose complaints, all but confirmed in a secretly recorded call to Fine’s wife, went unheeded.
From Mark Sanford (cheated with his Argentine soul mate) to John Ensign (slept with a top aide’s wife), from David Letterman (entertained the hired help) to Tiger Woods (scored with porn stars and nightclub hostesses), are these endless episodes a sign of societal deterioration—or of a ravenous news media eager to unearth and unleash such stories? And are they deadening the public’s nerve endings, exhausting our capacity for outrage?
Once, what public men did privately went largely unreported (see Kennedy, Jack), except in cases like that of Wilbur Mills, a powerful congressman whose stripper gal pal, Fanne Foxe, went cavorting with him in Washington’s Tidal Basin in 1974. Thirteen years later, there was controversy about a Washington Post reporter asking presidential candidate Gary Hart, “Have you ever committed adultery?”—even though five Miami Herald sleuths had seen a woman named Donna Rice emerge from his townhouse in the early-morning hours.
Even in the 1992 campaign, when Gennifer Flowers (who’d been paid by the tabloid Star) announced she’d had a 12-year affair with Clinton, the CBS and ABC newscasts refused to report it and The New York Times gave it just a few paragraphs, with executive editor Max Frankel pronouncing himself “ashamed for my profession.” By the end of the Clinton presidency, we were all talking about Monica Lewinsky’s stained blue dress. Now the whisper of an allegation ricochets around the web before journalists can make a single phone call.
Beyond the media’s embrace of salacious scandals, a culture of entitlement seems to have taken hold with ambitious men (or perhaps they’re the ones who tend to get caught). When Edwards finally stopped lying about his affair with Rielle Hunter, he said his political rise “fed a self-focus, an egotism, a narcissism that leads you to believe that you can do whatever you want. You’re invincible. And there will be no consequences.” There certainly were for Edwards, who only later admitted fathering a daughter with Hunter. And because philandering pols often get ensnared by sex, lies, videotape, or secret money, that web that now threatens to entangle Richardson, the former congressman, Secretary of Energy, and international trouble-shooter.
Still, our Oprah-fied culture tends to forgive and forget. Clinton is now an elder statesman. Gingrich is leading the GOP polls. Eliot Spitzer, who resigned as New York governor for patronizing prostitutes, got (and lost) a CNN talk show. Sanford, the ex-South Carolina governor who claimed to be hiking the Appalachian trail, just became a Fox News commentator. Who even remembers Jim McGreevey, the New Jersey governor who put his gay lover on the payroll, or Larry Craig, the toe-tapping senator arrested in a bathroom stall?
It is the sheer velocity of tarnished public figures, especially the appalling college coaches, that leaves us dazed, confused, and in need of a long national shower.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly said Bill Richardson was commerce secretary. He was the secretary of energy.