So What? – Trans-Atlantic Attitudes to Sex Scandals

Hannah Godfrey

David Petraeus resigned as head of the CIA this week after it emerged that he had been having an extramarital affair with his biographer. Despite a long, distinguished, and successful career, including the leadership of American forces in the war in Afghanistan, Petraeus was forced to resign. But why? President Obama has praised his “extraordinary service” to the country throughout his career[1]. Indeed, in his statement, the president said that “by any measure, through his lifetime of service David Petraeus has made our country safer and stronger.”

American public reactions to public officials having extramarital affairs have traditionally been strongly conservative. This was evident in the vitriol directed against President Bill Clinton when his affair with Monica Lewinsky emerged in 1998. It appears that the American people expect their political representatives and leaders to lead moral lives as well as fulfilling their given roles. If leaders contravene this strict moral code they often incur the wrath of the public. It has become standard practice for American officials who are discovered having affairs to resign, often with their professional reputations in tatters. The work of long and successful careers can be destroyed on the basis of what is essentially a private matter. In a country which prides itself on individualism and in some areas, libertarianism and freedom from government oversight, the willingness of the U.S. public to circumscribe the behaviour of its leaders, even at the potential detriment of the national agenda is in many ways surprising.

This puritanical attitude towards public relationships is not shared by European populations, however. The French, for example, have a long history of their presidents having extra-marital affairs. Allegations have emerged that the last four Presidents (Mitterand, Chirac, Sarkozy, and Hollande) have had illicit affairs with women. And yet these affairs did not influence public attitudes towards these men.  This is based on a widespread perception that everyone is entitled to their right to privacy (jardin secret). President François Hollande and his partner, Valerie Trierweiler, began their affair while she was still married. She is unpopular with the French public, however, not because of this adultery but because she is seen as a self-publicist for her management of her image in a role which has traditionally been the epitome of demureness and elegance[2]. Similarly, Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian Prime Minister, weathered a number of sex scandals while in office before finally succumbing to allegations of corruption and tax evasion. Despite accusations of soliciting prostitutes, including an underage teenager, there was never any widespread public outrage among the Italian public at Berlusconi’s behaviour.

So really, what’s the big deal? The fact is that people have extramarital affairs every day. Ultimately, as long as public figures are not misusing public funds or abusing their positions, and they continue to execute their role adequately, it seems unnecessary to publicly censure them. Although morally reprehensible, it seems misguided that conservative public attitudes should potentially remove effective and talented leaders from office. David Petraeus is a significant loss to the CIA and to the nation.




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