Sunday, August 21, 2011

Dangerous Liaisons

"Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall."

Proverbs 16:18

Over the centuries of human history, there have been many reasons why whoever held power eventually was toppled.

But at the heart of it all, it seems to me, is a special kind of arrogance — the absolute certainty that one is always in the right and anyone who disagrees is wrong, the belief that one is above the rules by which all others must live.

This arrogance has been expressed in many ways, but in my lifetime it most often seems to be linked to sexual indiscretion of some kind. When those episodes begin to pile up, my experience tells me, it's an indication that some changes are coming.

In the 1960s and '70s, for example, the Democrats built on already huge advantages in Congress that the party had enjoyed since the 1950s. In those days, the levels of Democratic control ebbed and flowed in each chamber, but, in hindsight, the commanding leads the party often had were unsustainable.

Then some seemingly entrenched House leaders (among them Wayne Hays of Ohio and the longtime representative of my district in Arkansas, Wilbur Mills) were caught with — shall we say — their hands in the cookie jar. When the dust settled in 1980, Republicans — who had appeared to be an endangered species when Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 — had recaptured the White House and overthrown the Democratic majority in the Senate.

I considered myself a Democrat in those days, and I hoped, as the Reagan presidency neared its conclusion, that the Democrats had learned their lesson.

And for a time there in the 1980s, the Democrats seemed to have learned from the experience of losing control of a chamber of Congress — and cleaned up their acts.

Gary Hart was considered the leader for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination until he got caught in a compromising relationship aboard a boat that was aptly named Monkey Business.

In the 1990s, relationships with interns led to the downfall of Newt Gingrich and the impeachment (but not the removal from office) of Bill Clinton.

Most such scandals were tied to Democrats — largely, I suppose, because, with the exception of the White House, Democrats were in charge of the federal government for most of those years. I've always felt it played a role, however minor, in the seismic shift of 1994, when Republicans took control of both houses of Congress.

Then, in the last decade or so, things began to come apart for the Republicans, too. The pendulum swung in the GOP's direction with Larry Craig's men's room encounter in the Minneapolis airport and Mark Foley's sexually explicit e–mails to congressional pages.

But, when they reclaimed power in the mid–2000s, Democrats hadn't learned the lesson. Their sense of entitlement to congressional authority apparently was not accompanied by a sense of responsibility to behave in a seemly fashion.

Former vice presidential nominee John Edwards was revealed to have had an extramarital relationship that produced a child. Last month, New York Rep. Anthony Weiner admitted sending suggestive photos of himself to women, and recently Oregon Rep. David Wu announced he would resign because it had been discovered that he made advances to the daughter of a fundraiser.

Wu is in his 50s and has been separated from his wife since 2009. The fundraiser's daughter was 18 when these advances reportedly took place last fall. Virtually any relationship between the two would raise eyebrows, but, legally, they are adults.

That isn't really the issue, though. Americans have always had kind of a double standard when it comes to their leaders.

Private citizens may be unfaithful to their spouses — and, if it is discovered, it is neither their employers' business nor their co–workers' — nor even their friends'. It is between the spouses and, perhaps, their families, but no one else.

Elected officials are different. In the twisted logic of most voters, the private behavior of elected officials must be impeccable — even if whatever they are doing privately has no influence on their public actions.

But voters in both parties believe that, because their tax dollars pay elected officials' salaries, they are entitled to know everything those officials do.

Most private citizens would consider it an invasion of their privacy if their employer started asking others about their drinking habits — or whether they prefer to socialize with males or females or whether they like to spend Saturday afternoons at the track.

If dubious behavior of any kind — legal or illegal — is uncovered, it could well spell the end of that politician's career — and, if the timing is particularly bad, it could mean the end of the politician's party's control of Congress or one of its chambers.

I thought there had been plenty of examples of this throughout history — and that recent history re–confirmed that the grip that either party has on power is tenuous.

I figured that the congressional veterans would constantly remind their parties' incoming freshmen to be on their best behavior.

But I suppose the intoxication of power is too great to keep some from engaging in dangerous liaisons.

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