Source: Straits Times, 01 July 2009
DISGRACED South Carolina governor Mark Sanford must wish he was Italian.
For, while Mr Sanford’s political life hangs by a thread because he was caught visiting a mistress while claiming to be on a mountaineering holiday, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has just shrugged off accusations of involvement in orgies with prostitutes without a dent to his popularity.
Why do American voters usually punish politicians caught with their trousers around their ankles, while their European counterparts seldom care? No conclusive answer can be provided of course, but there is no shortage of likely explanations.
American politics is not about ideology: the entire system is driven by personalities. As a result, ‘character’ is the most precious commodity in public life, and sexual behaviour remains a legitimate subject of interest.
Religion also plays an important part. This does not mean that a US politician has to be an avid church-goer, but he or she has to be seen to be adhering to a well-defined moral code. Never mind that a large share of US marriages end in divorce, with infidelity as a main cause; Americans expect a politician to be an ‘average Joe’ in everything, except for personal conduct.
The highly competitive political selection process also plays its part. By the time Mr Barack Obama became the Democratic Party’s candidate for the presidential elections, even his primary school records had been pored over by opponents, in the hopes of finding some damaging evidence.
And the system of US confirmation hearings elevates prurience to a form of art. Bad behaviour towards a pet or hiring the wrong sort of maid guarantees instant disqualification. The entire process is shrouded in the sanctimonious language of political correctness, in order to avoid offending anyone.
Matters could not be more different in Europe, however. On the ‘old continent’, ideological labels still matter. This provides some protection: even if someone is exposed as a philanderer, Europeans believe that, provided his or her ideas are sound, this should not matter.
And religion or morality are private matters, rather than public badges. The German Chancellor is on her second marriage, for reasons which – quite properly – she keeps to herself. The Prime Minister of Iceland is openly gay.
Meanwhile in France, the convention against prurient interest in private lives is even stronger. Mistresses to powerful men are an institution; traditionally, they were known as the ‘Grandes Horizontales’. When French President Francois Mitterrand died, both his wife and mistress attended the funeral. Voters hardly cared.
Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi should, therefore, have no trouble in dismissing current allegations of misconduct. Indeed, the only issue which troubles the 72-year-old leader is the allegation that a gorgeous man like him, or so he would like to believe, should ever have to pay for sexual favours: ‘I have never seen the satisfaction in it, without the pleasure of conquest,’ Mr Berlusconi bashfully put it. Most Italian men probably sympathise with such arguments.
This does not mean that every European politician embroiled in sex scandals survives.
A German defence minister was forced to resign when he was photographed cavorting with a girlfriend in a swimming pool. But this was because the minister timed his entertainment on the very day German soldiers went into Afghanistan; his offence was political, rather than moral.
Many British politicians have also frequently stumbled on the sword of morality. Yet these were usually the ones who banged the drum of ‘family values’, only to be discovered beating drums elsewhere. Those who kept quiet and never preached generally survived.
Nor is it certain that a sex scandal represents an automatic political death sentence in the US. President Bill Clinton famously overcame his encounter with ‘that woman’, though he did face impeachment. Governor Sanford may survive as well.
But the techniques required to overcome a sex scandal in the US are far more complicated. Offending politicians must show deep contrition. They must be forgiven by their spouses, in public. It helps too if they can plausibly blame their misfortune on childhood abuse, alcohol or any kind of addiction. Simply admitting that they succumbed to lust will not do.
Be that as it may, there are indications that, when it comes to sex scandals, Europe is slowly beginning to resemble the US.
Ideology is disappearing, and the traditional means of picking European leaders behind closed doors are going as well. Personal details about European politicians suddenly matter; a French book detailing the private lives of the country’s presidents became an instant bestseller.
So, it is just possible that the antics of Italy’s Berlusconi are now the exception, rather than the rule.
Whether this is a good or a bad development remains immaterial, for both sides of the Atlantic agree on one point: in terms of sheer entertainment, nothing beats a good political sex scandal.