The Magazine

Gary Condit's Washington

Looking for love in all the wrong places.

Sep 3, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 47 • By JAMES W. CEASER
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WASHINGTON, D.C., HAS COME OF AGE. The affairs of representative Gary Condit, like those of the more illustrious politician he emulates, have at last shown the world that the American capital is a sophisticated town, the rival of its European counterparts. Just turn on the TV or read a major newspaper. While commentators don’t actually endorse serial philandering, they are sure to keep their disapproval perfunctory, a quick prelude to discussing the "real" issues at hand. When it comes to matters now deemed private, there is a rush to avoid judgment.

Washington was not always this way. When the British scholar Anthony King inaugurated the science of scandology in 1981, his chief discovery was that while British political scandals hinged on sex, those in America remained stuck on bread and butter varieties of bribery. King’s empirical research drew strength from a much older European view, or prejudice, that our capital was woefully deficient in the arts of romance. The great French writer Stendhal, in his work De l’Amour (On Love) published during our Era of Good Feeling in 1822, rendered a stinging judgment: "The habits of reasonableness prevail so much in the United States that the crystallization of love there has become impossible."

It is nice to know, then, that we have finally caught up in refinement. Or have we? A closer look at Stendhal’s masterpiece shows that his primary concern was with the quality of love or intimate relations, which might be undermined not just by the pedestrian habits of reasonableness, but also by a bleak and tawdry view of romance. Love, for Stendhal, though obviously rooted in natural feelings, was mostly a product of art, of an idea planted in the public imagination by moralists, novelists, artists, journalists, and all manner of public figures. Love, he thought, is one of the great accomplishments of civilization, and sustaining it is one of our highest responsibilities. "Love is civilization’s miracle," wrote Stendhal. "Among savages and barbarians only physical love of the coarsest kind exists. Modesty protects love by imagination, and so gives it the chance to survive."

Which brings us back to contemporary Washington, D.C. Stendhal’s concerns were echoed in worries voiced recently at a meeting of the Independent Women’s Forum. In an audience filled with working women, from interns to high civil servants, many raised the question of what picture of romance is being held up to the imaginations of the young by Washington’s celebrity lovers. What these speakers had in mind were affairs between powerful males and overmatched, though not always innocent, females, whose expectations are usually disappointed. Stendhal had a term for this kind of intimate relation, "love à la Don Juan" or "Don Juanism," and he regarded it as the greatest modern enemy of genuine love. It features a male engaged in a continuing series of conquests, whose attitude is, "You are hunting; you come across a handsome young peasant girl who takes to her heels through the woods." Substitute policymaking for hunting, and intern or staff worker for peasant girl, and you can easily accommodate the mores of Washington.

What our new sophistication amounts to is the mainstreaming of Don Juanism. This change has been in the works for several years, but the Condit affair may have clinched it. The position of leftist women’s groups during the Clinton impeachment debate helped pave the way. Before Bill Clinton, the feminist Left was conducting a scorched earth campaign to punish males (all Republicans) accused of indulging in unwanted sexual speech or boorishness. This censorious endeavor, which drew on a hatred of men and male sexuality as such, represented a strange and fanatical new puritanism. Sophisticates were too browbeaten to express their disagreement.

But the politics of impeachment forced a change. Holding the fate of a liberal president in their hands, the women’s groups abandoned their crusade and, to disguise this political expediency, adopted a new position of principle. Suddenly they argued that the core of their cause was to protect a woman’s right to choose whatever sexual involvements she pleases. Sophisticates now walked arm in arm with feminists. Under this principle, Don Juanism might be condemned, but without real fervor. To use Harvard Law School lingo, any concerns on this score are "trumped" by a woman’s consent.

Already some women leaders, including some members of Congress, have expressed discomfort with this position, which no longer serves any practical political purpose. The problem is that, in the context of Washington, the de jure insistence on a woman’s right to choose seems to sanction a de facto advantage for men.