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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There are two possible ways out. One is to abandon the new principle, although so hasty a reversal might bespeak a lack of seriousness. The other is to vindicate the principle of equality by legitimizing the fair sex’s version of Don Juanism. No polite term yet exists for this lifestyle choice, although "Messalinaism" has been suggested, named for the wife of the emperor Claudius who was renowned for her public displays of sexual prowess with members of the Roman Legion. But this option too has its drawbacks. The Roman historian Tacitus judged Messalina with unusual sternness: "In that lust-ridden heart there was no trace of decency." Would female politicians who followed this path today face similar censure, even as their male counterparts continued to enjoy benign neglect? Such an injustice is a nightmare for the proponents of perfect equality.

The new sophistication in Washington has brought an important transformation of public standards. With a few notable exceptions, those appearing on television to comment on Rep. Condit’s missing girlfriend have been forced to repeat, almost as a mantra, some variation of the formula: If committing adultery disqualified a man from public office, only (a) one-third, (b) one-quarter, (c) one-eighth of the members would be left in Congress. The continual public repetition of this "fact" is meant to act as a bar against the rendering of any verdict on private behavior. The claim that "everyone does it," traditionally the weak excuse of the exposed offender, now serves as a preemptive defense to ward off potential criticisms. Likewise, although no one is supposed to judge the private behavior of public officials, public officials now use government staff to cover for and lie about their personal affairs.

The larger issue involved in these cases, however, is not the rights and wrongs of any particular affair, but the long-term impoverishment of our romantic sensibilities. When all is permitted and no one is held to account, love itself is likely to suffer. With no risk of censure, what proof or surety exists of a lover’s seriousness? All recognize, of course, that a cultural or philosophical treatment of love does not necessarily endorse the standards of morality demanded by religious injunctions, which derive their authority from another source. By the same token, religious treatments acknowledge that not every intimate affair outside the boundaries of marriage is devoid of love. Things are more complicated than that. Yet before we seize on the mysteries of love to mock orthodox morality, it would be well to consider the far greater toll taken on love by our new dogmatic tolerance of the ethic of the libertine.

James W. Ceaser teaches government at the University of Virginia. His latest book, with Andrew Busch, is The Perfect Tie: The True Story of the 2000 Presidential Election (Rowman & Littlefield).