Analysis: Why Do Politicians Cheat?

By: Liz Sidoti AP Email
By: Liz Sidoti AP Email

WASHINGTON (AP) - What is it with philandering politicians?

Why do men in power - the ones on pedestals - think they are above us and can get away with cheating on their spouses, particularly when media scrutiny is so intense and peccadilloes are arguably more politically damaging than in the past?

There's a long list of those who thought they could jet off to Argentina, or cruise on the Monkey Business, or check into a hotel under an assumed name or use an escort service and never get caught, never have to come clean.

The names quickly come to mind - South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., Sen. David Vitter, R-La., former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., one-time Democratic presidential hopefuls John Edwards and Gary Hart, former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, ex-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, current New York Gov. David Paterson.

These days, the fallout can run the gamut. It can doom a career - former New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey - or unleash the fury of a
special prosecutor, leading to impeachment - then-President Bill Clinton.

This wasn't always the way it was. There are politicians, presidents even, who did the dalliance dance privately and didn't pay publicly, John F. Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt included.

No more.

It's a different world - a public that feeds on the exploits of Paris, Lindsay and Britney documented in the tabloids, glossy magazines and at-your-fingertips Internet has developed an insatiable appetite for scandal.

That makes it all the more inexplicable that these men - and they are almost universally men, as politics remains mostly a man's game - tempt fate. And, particularly, men with presidential aspirations.

One possible explanation, said Stanley Renshon, a political psychologist at City University of New York: "Narcissism is an occupational hazard for political leaders. You have to have an outsized ambition and an outsized ego to run for office."

Or, perhaps, think you can stray from your marriage without consequence.

"I think too often, and for me in the political process, you begin to think of yourself as master of your own universe and your own set of ethical structures, your own sense of decision-making," McGreevey, who resigned amid a scandal over his admission of a homosexual affair, said Thursday on NBC's "Today" show.

To be sure, politicians don't necessarily have different reasons for cheating than non-politicians, and they don't necessarily cheat more often.

The difference: "They live their lives more in a fishbowl, and that has responsibilities and costs with it," Renshon said, adding that an adulterous politician doesn't just betray his family's trust, he also betrays the public's trust.

Indeed, when politicians get caught, they do so in extraordinary fashion and their actions raise questions about their judgment, character and integrity as a leader.

If they can lie to their loved ones, who is to say they won't lie to everyone else? If they can't stay faithful to their marriage vows, who is to say they'll stay faithful to their oaths of office? And if they have secrets in their private lives, who is to say they don't have secrets in their public lives?

"It does matter in public perceptions," said Stephen Wayne, a Georgetown University government professor who has studied political psychology. When it comes to the highest positions in politics, he said, "we want to figure out who acts as a model for others."

Presidents, senators, congressmen and governors who have extramarital affairs flunk that test.

On some level, it's easy to see why they cheat.

Fred Greenstein, a Princeton University professor emeritus of politics, suggested adrenaline as the common denominator, saying, "For some individuals, the excitement of illicit sexual activity might feed the same desire" as "the excitement of politics."

Political life - with its long hours, frequent travel and endless stream of new acquaintances - also can be a strain on even rock-solid marriages. At times, the lifestyle almost seems to invite unfaithfulness.

"There's lots of temptation," Greenstein added.

There's also a clue in the kind of people drawn to politics.

These are men who love themselves deeply, need to be recognized
and relish approval. These are men who adore getting praise and who
often are surrounded by swarms of sycophants. These are men who, in some cases, need to exercise power and sometimes can become drunk from it. These are men who think the rules don't apply to them and
who think they're untouchable.

As leaders, these are also the type of men who are likely to break promises, manipulate and cut corners. They probably are big risk-takers. And they're prone to thinking of themselves first.

Just ask their wives, their mistresses - or the security details that often are privy to indiscretions.

Not a year seems to go by without a Washington sex scandal, and
both Democrats and Republicans are guilty.

Last year, Edwards, Vitter and Spitzer came before the public to admit they erred.

This month alone, it has been Ensign and Sanford, two Republicans who have mentioned as possible 2012 presidential candidates as the out-of-power GOP seeks to rebound.

Those dreams are probably over, and the double disclosures of infidelity also may have brought short-term embarrassment to a party searching for a new leader.

Said Todd Harris, a Republican operative, "If this was supposed to be our farm team, we'd better start looking for a new farm."


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