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.
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).