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Political Peccadilloes Aplenty

Illicit or unsavory sex committed by public political figures is not a modern or strictly American phenomenon. History tells us about the practices of ancient Greek and Roman leaders. Shakespeare documents the proclivities of Julius Caesar, MacBeth and Hamlet.

Many of Great Britain’s leaders have been humbled by sex scandals. Recently, Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s behaviors have been publicly scrutinized. The last three French presidents have all been besmirched by their sexual sagas.

But there’s something about what’s going on with U.S. politicians that feels more disturbing than simply caving into carnal temptations. Certainly, the number of sex scandals involving high profile politicians is disturbing. But even more distressing is what many of the perpetrators espouse and why they succumb.

Let’s start with the “what” and with the latest elected official to be severely tarnished after boasting to a colleague during a committee meeting about his extramarital sexual exploits with two women. His absurdity became public because he was talking into am open microphone with a video camera recording his travesty. Former California Assemblyman Michael Duvall represented a conservative Orange County district until last week. The same week that his adolescent dirty talk was revealed, he resigned. Politically, Duvall was considered pro-family based on his votes during the 2007-2008 legislative session. Further, he received a 100 percent rating from Capitol Resource Institute, a conservative advocacy group.

Unlike Duvall, Nevada Senator John Ensign who revealed his extra-marital affair with a staffer’s wife and made payments to her family, refuses to resign. But like Duvall, Ensign is a social conservative. He is opposed to same sex marriage and belongs to the Christian ministry Promise Keepers. What he espouses are the seven vows of the Promise Keepers members, which include commitment to building strong marriages and practicing spiritual, moral, ethical, and sexual purity.

Then there’s South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford who campaigned on traditional family values and lied about his whereabouts this summer until he was forced to confess that he was with his lover in Argentina -- another family values advocate who betrayed his family.

Sanford, Ensign and Duvall are not alone in their beliefs and their behavior. Others have broken the rules they strongly advocated for others, including New York Democratic Governor Eliot Spitzer who waged a high profile battle against prostitution rings and became Client No. 9 of one of those rings and spent tens of thousands on hookers.

So this brings us to the “why” they succumb. The reasons offered by all kinds of experts and academicians are prodigious:

  • The aphrodisiac of power
  • The sense of entitlement and privilege
  • Politicians as thrill-seekers and risk-takers
  • The sense of invincibility as the ego grows

This is what I believe: politicians speak out vigorously against the very behavior that represents their own weakness and they project onto others their own disturbing aspects of character. When they act out those behaviors that they publicly deplore, they gamble with their lives, their families and their careers. It’s a dangerous game, but it keeps happening. History proves that. But if we can look beneath the stump speeches, the rabble rousing, and the campaign passion to understand what’s really going on, we can figure out that we are being manipulated, know why, and protect ourselves from becoming suckers.

Click the audio player below to listen to KPBS Political Correspondent Gloria Penner on These Days discuss the sex scandals of the summer and why politicians keep misbehaving.


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.

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