The Nude Hiking Club

Noah Fram

Here’s a name for you: Maria Belen Chapur.  Anybody recognize it off the top of their head?  What if I told you its owner inadvertently destroyed a man who once was at the top of the political world in his state, a man who was at one point a national darling of sorts?  Who made headlines for rejecting national funds on principle, reorganized his state’s tax code, and whose receding hairline could have been featured in a Rogaine commercial?  Still nothing?  How about an ill-fated hike on the Appalachian Trail, on National Nude Hiking Day no less?

Honestly, do any of you remember Mark Sanford?

Mr. Sanford’s story is near and dear to my heart since, as a South Carolinian myself, it proffered such a remarkable bounty of political comedy.  An abandoned government car at the Atlanta airport, the (scarring) mental image of the now former Governor hiking the Appalachian Trail in his birthday suit, and the legislature’s unwillingness to remove him in favor of Andre “Stray Animals” Bauer all added up to a perfect scenario for us columnists.  Problematically, that situation has fallen from the national spotlight in the years since (excepting a brief resurgence when Mr. Sanford married his Argentine sweetheart), so I can’t just…bring it up.

So this week I offer you a compendium of high-profile marital disputes involving politicians, along with how the public reacted.  I call this list The Nude Hiking Club.  We will work backwards, starting with:

Anthony Weiner, who admitted to “tweeting a photo of his bulging underpants to a young woman.”  There is no easy term for tweeting a suggestive picture (a la “sexting”), unfortunately.  But the point remains: Mr. Weiner resigned his post in the US House of Representatives shortly after this admission.  I would make a joke about many other US Representatives and the unnatural success of Viagra, but I have to stay somewhat appropriate.  Next on our list, in increasing order of callousness, are:

John Ensign, who resigned his seat in Congress after admitting to having an affair with the wife of a close friend; and John Edwards, whose campaign was famously demolished by the public release of his cheating on his wife who was at the time dying of cancer.  Mr. Ensign’s transgression gains additional “douchebag points” (pardon the colloquialism, but it is certainly appropriate) since he called for Bill Clinton’s resignation following the Monica Lewinsky scandal.  But if you grant me a soapbox for a moment: John Edwards thoroughly deserved his meteoric fall from grace.  Infidelity is one thing; cheating on your longtime partner in the late stages of their terminal illness is the height of self-centered immorality.

Anyway.  On to Strom Thurmond.  Yes, the man who literally died in office fathered a child on an African-American woman back in his youth…in 1923.  Bizarrely, although Thurmond was noted for his opposition to desegregation policies, his family publicly acknowledged her as one of his children, and added her name to his monument at the State House in Columbia, SC.  This is a case where the illegitimate child did almost nothing to damage the politician’s reputation, and it seems to have been handled as well as possible by all involved, this late in the process (although Jesse Jackson would certainly disagree).

Next on the list is Bill Clinton.  But we all know that story.  So I’ll mention several people who called for his resignation while carrying on or concealing their own affairs: New Gingrich, Robert Livingston, Bob Barr, Henry Hyde, Helen Chenoweth-Hage (the first woman on our list), and Ken Calvert.  And here I thought politicians were never hypocritical…oh, well.  You can’t win them all.

Barney Frank has one of the more interesting stories.  Unlike these others, Mr. Frank was not himself accused of an affair, but rather of aiding and abetting a male escort service being operated out of his apartment back in 1989.  Obviously, his career survived the blow (which to my mind is equal parts fascinating and scandalous): there was about a 4% swing from the 1988 election to the 1990 campaign, as he won 66% of the vote as opposed to 70%.  Two cycles later, he ran unopposed.  Welcome to Massachusetts, I suppose.

In 1976, Wayne Hays’s career ended when the fallacious employment of Elizabeth Ray went public.  She was on his payroll even though she was quoted as saying “I can’t type, I can’t file, I can’t even answer the phone.”  This last brings up the question of how she ever got the job in the first place, but that’s neither here nor there.  Also from the ‘70s is Mr. John Schmitz, US Representative and member of the John Birch Society, whose career was ended after he admitted to having two children out of wedlock.

If you’ve noticed, the frequency of these is steadily falling.  There are quite a few possible reasons for this ranging from “we care more now than we did” to “the media machine is more effective now” or even “more politicians are having affairs now than ever before.”  This last would be quite an interesting thing, actually; although divorce rates are up in general, I don’t really know what effect that would have on extramarital affairs.  I also don’t know what would cause that shift, especially given perhaps the most famous case:

John F. Kennedy was widely rumored (or perhaps known) to have had several affairs.  First of all, I should note that he was married to Jackie Onassis.  Second, the list of women he was romantically connected to includes, among others, Marlene Dietrich and Marilyn Monroe.  It seems that the general reaction to his affairs has been something along the lines of “that lucky…” rather than the revulsion the public has today.  Also, he was noted for his, er, promiscuity.

On the one hand, I am glad that we as a nation no longer hero-worship men (and women) guilty of profligate infidelity.  On the other hand, we may be slightly desensitized to the whole thing.  The next politician whose affair is revealed will be just another news item, rather than the disaster it was for, say, Mr. Hays.

And regardless, all of these people (and many others I did not mention) are proud, card-carrying members of The Nude Hiking Club.  As Mr. Rowan Atkinson said: “My God, there are a lot of you.”  By the way, that’s the video of the week.

Next week’s article, in honor of recent Presidential campaign events, will be “The Lincoln-Romney Format.”

Have a good week!