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Political Analysis: A Summer Of Sex Scandals


An Orange County Assemblyman is the latest politician to lose his career over an illicit affair. KPBS Political Correspondent Gloria Penner discusses the sex scandals of the summer and why politicians keep misbehaving.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. California Assemblyman Michael Duvall is the latest family values politician to expose what he really values in explicit sexual detail. The Orange County Republican was caught with his mike open at a (sic) Sacramento capitol last week as he talked about his sex-romps with lobbyists. Duvall has since claimed it was just raunchy talk but the incident has led to his resignation. Duvall now joins the ranks of conservative politicians who have campaigned on platforms of social and religious values, while apparently making whoopee whenever no one's looking. That level of hypocrisy may be the most egregious, but of course, politicians of all ideologies have been caught up in a long sordid list of sex scandals. So what is it about being a politician that makes playing with fire so attractive? And do we concentrate too much on the scandals and not enough on the substance of politics? Joining me to take a bipartisan approach on political sex scandals is KPBS political correspondent Gloria Penner. Good morning, Gloria.

GLORIA PENNER (KPBS Political Correspondent): Good morning, Maureen, and I am wearing my two hats this morning, both parties.


PENNER: Both sides.

CAVANAUGH: Both sides. Good. So, well, Gloria, give us the details first, if you would, as many as you can actually say on the radio, of the very x-rated scandal that brought down California Assemblyman Mike Duvall.

PENNER: Okay, first of all, he is from conservative Orange County, I have to tell you that. He served six years in the Yorba Linda City Council. He owns an insurance company. He has two adult children. And he really didn't do very much in the Assembly during his first term. And so it looked as though he was going to cruise into a very quite second term, and then he was caught in flagrante, I guess it would be said, talking to a friend, another Republican in the – an open microphone in a capitol hearing room. And in that, he talked about, in detail, two women with whom he had purportedly slept with. He talked about, bragged about I should say, a spanking fetish, the type of underwear worn by his mistress, and his apparent ability to carry on two extra marital affairs at once. He went into great detail about the woman's eye-patch underwear and the age difference between himself and his mistress, something like almost 20 years. So, you know, with the language he used, sounds very much like a teenager talking. He says, oh, she's hot. So she goes, are we finished? I go, no, we're not finished. I go, you know about the other one. I mean, this does sound like a 14 year old, does it not?

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, that's sort of – in an open mike on the – in the Senate, Sacramento Capitol.

PENNER: And on video.

CAVANAUGH: And on video.

PENNER: Yeah. KCAL picked it up. They actually – you actually see him doing it on video. And the interesting thing is that Michael Duvall, quiet as he was, was vice chairman of the Assembly Utilities Committee, and several media outlets have reported that the woman Duvall refers to in his comments works as a lobbyist for Sempra Energy, which is a San Diego-based energy services company, operates SDG&E. That creates some problems if, indeed, it is true, and I'm sure the investigation will reveal that on – just on one other point.


PENNER: Michael Duvall had received 100% rating from Capitol Resource Institute, which is a conservative advocacy group for his votes on legislation considered pro-family during the 2007-2008 legislative session.

CAVANAUGH: Well, Mike Duvall resigned…

PENNER: He did.

CAVANAUGH: …the same week that his affairs became public. But another tarnished politician is still in office, that's South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford. Gloria, remind us what Governor Sanford did on his summer vacation.

PENNER: Well, he called it a weekend but actually it was five days. It had been reported that he had been missing since a Thursday and then late that day his office said that he'd been hiking the Appalachian Trail on his own, and then his office said he was back on Wednesday. So, you know, the Appalachian Trail story never quite made sense because the original line about how nobody knew where he was and his wife saying Sanford had taken some time off to do some writing, and then his car and his cell phone were found in the airport parking lot. And eventually he agreed to come forth and he had a very long, public admission about the fact that his soulmate lived in Argentina and they'd been having an affair for quite a while. And his wife said he was obsessed with the woman and she kind of left him for a while. I don't know if they're back together again. But she feels, according to the interviews that she gave, that Sanford is going through a midlife crisis and that he – She said, I think my husband has got some issues that he needs to work on about what happiness is. He may have found his own happiness but certainly not the kind of happiness that his wife agreed with.

CAVANAUGH: Again, a very conservative politician from a conservative state and – but even South Carolina Republicans have now asked Sanford to step down, isn't that true?

PENNER: Oh, yes. There are 72 Republican legislators, as I understand it, in – and 60 of them have asked him to stop – step down, and we're talking about in the state legislature there. But in order to impeach him, they have to – he can only be impeached on serious crimes or serious misconduct, and so they have to find some serious misconduct. It's now with the state Ethics Commission and they're going through thousands of pages of documents to probe into his travel and his campaign finance practices. And they're going to see whether the way he spent money was inappropriate and whether it rises to the level of serious.

CAVANAUGH: Well, to round out the trifecta of summertime political sex scandals, we have U.S. Senator John Ensign of Nevada. He revealed his extramarital affair with a staffer's wife. He, another Republican, another conservative, and he allegedly made payments to her family. So how is the Republican party reacting to this scandal?

PENNER: Well, the problem here is that you now had two very prominent Republicans, two Republicans, Ensign and Sanford, who were considered good possibilities for the nomination for president for 2012. And, of course, neither one of them is a possibility now. The problem in the case of Ensign is that he didn't decide to acknowledge the affair until the husband of the woman he'd been seeing, who worked with him, asked him for this substantial sum of money. And at that point, he said that, you know, he really didn't feel he had done anything wrong, unlike President Clinton, and former Idaho Senator Larry Craig, who we can talk about later. He felt that they had done something legally wrong…


PENNER: …but he felt that he hadn't. The interesting thing about Ensign is that he's a social conservative who has railed against gay marriage. He belongs to the Christian ministry Promise Keepers whose members adhere to seven vows. And here are two of the vows that they adhere to. Vow number three, a Promise Keeper is committed to practicing spiritual, moral, ethical and sexual purity. And vow number four, a Promise Keeper is committed to building strong marriages and families through love, protection and Biblical values. Enough said.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I think you make the point entirely because we all know there certainly are enough Democrats who have been discovered in various kinds of sex scandals but, I wonder, isn't the level of betrayal ramped up when we have someone who is basing their political career on a certain set of values and then actually engages in one of these sexual affairs or misconduct?

PENNER: Well, there are two things going on here. Republicans tend not to resign; Democrats tend to. Not in every case, this is true. I mean, but when they're caught, they tend to resign and it's usually the end of their political careers. With the Republicans, they seldom resign and sometimes they're not even forced from office. For example, take Senator David Vitter of Louisiana. He was found in 2006 to be a frequent customer of the DC Madam, and his love for prostitutes also involved wearing diapers. But Vitter is not only still in office, but seems to stand a good chance of getting reelected next year. The difference seems to be the hypocrisy factor. The Democratic Party in the United States has not tried to set itself up as the morality police. Democrats sometimes campaign as strong family people but that's seldom the center of the campaign. They don't claim to be morally superior. They don't try to claim that voting for them is the only way to save the American family, and Republicans do make such claims. So when you have those claims and then you have this kind of behavior, it's true hypocrisy, as it is perceived, as well as lying.

CAVANAUGH: Well, it's a good thing that Democrats don't set themselves up to be the moral policemen because now that we've mentioned Democrats, remind us of some of the notable sex scandals involving Democratic politicians.

PENNER: Well, let's see, where do you want to start? I think we have to start with the primo one and, of course, that is Democrat Bill Clinton who, in 1998, had his affair with intern Monica Lewinsky, and this may very well go down as the biggest sex scandal in American history. It resulted in his impeachment although he wasn't convicted by the Senate. He was impeached by the House, not convicted by the Senate. And, let's see, who else is there? Well, there was Democrat Jim McGreevey in 2004, married with children, former New Jersey governor, with his wife by his side, he resigned as governor after dropping the bombshell that he was having a gay affair. And he said, my truth is I am a gay American and, you know, that was probably still one of the most stunning press conferences of all time that I can remember. Then, speaking of hypocrisy, we have John Edwards. John Edwards, whose wife was – is battling cancer and after the National Enquirer exposed his affair and he certainly was a one-time Democratic star, he finally admitted to sleeping with a woman who's – his campaign had hired to shoot web videos, despite his wife's very public bout with cancer and his presidential run in 2008. And the other one I can think of—and I'm sure everybody will remember—Democrat Elliot Spitzer, another rising star. He went from Attorney General, fighting prostitution rings, to governor of New York. Well, last year – he will always, after last year, be remembered as client number nine. He came crashing down after it was revealed he'd spent tens of thousands of dollars on hookers despite the fact that he was married with kids.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I wonder, Gloria, in your research on this, are there any sort of psychological explanations why these men, these prominent men, will risk everything they've worked for to indulge in one of these escapades?

PENNER: Oh, there are psychological explanations galore, Maureen. I mean, there's everything from these are people whose egos grow so large they think they're invincible. They live in a world where they begin to feel so privileged as human beings that the rules of normal people no longer apply. And then there are those who put their own flaws, the very behaviors that they deplore in themselves, that they indulge in, you project that wrong onto others that is symptomatic of your own behavior. It's called a defense mechanism, and basically what it means is, you hate it in yourself and you go after it in other people. You know, you know your own weakness so what you do is you focus on others. And then there are all kinds of other things. There's that sense of entitlement people get when they're elected. The kind of person who goes into politics, they're invigorated by risk. Some people feel politicians are thrill seekers. There's the alpha male type of thing and that symbiosis of sex and power and energy. And, again, speaking out vigorously against the very behavior that they indulge in. So there are lots of theories.

CAVANAUGH: Let me – We have to wrap it up, Gloria, but let me ask you in – finally, any women involved in sex scandals?

PENNER: Not too many. And I don't know whether that's because women are particularly clever or whether they just don't get so involved. The last one that I can think of is Helen Chenoweth and she had – let me see now, if I can find the details. Here it is. She was, again, an archconservative Republican from Idaho. She blasted Bill Clinton's infidelity and then admitted to a six-year affair with a married rancher from her home state. And she said, I've asked for God's forgiveness and, she said, I've received it.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, Gloria, thank you for taking us on this long, strange journey.

PENNER: Strange is right. Thank you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Gloria Penner is KPBS political correspondent and host of Editors Roundtable and San Diego Week. You can read her blog, Political Fix, on our website at Coming up, the secret history of a fulltime eater. We'll talk with former New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni. It's next on These Days.

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