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How Pure Must Our Candidates Be?
The distasteful questions we ask our presidential hopefuls serve a real purpose
May/June 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 4
Paradoxically, the same processes that have led to the election of a divorced man have led to the scrutiny of adulteries committed by Gary Hart. The same opening up of taboo subjects, the same willingness to reassess the relevance of sexual behavior to public respectability made people bring up questions earlier suppressed. The ban on divorced men, or on Catholics, or Jews, or blacks, was never explicit in our politics. Neither Congress nor the Constitution, nor any party rules or guidelines expressly forbade the nomination of minority candidates. It was an unspoken prohibition, a gentlemen’s agreement cloaked in civil reticences. The whole structure of suppression rested on an imperviousness to scrutiny or public challenge. It was simply unthinkable that a woman, for instance, could be President.
Well, now it is thinkable. But for that to happen, vast changes in our social assumptions had to take place —the entire feminist movement, for instance. That, in turn, could not have occurred without the preceding civil rights movement, during which arguments, debates, and demonstrations broke the rules of contained discourse that had countenanced Jim Crow laws.
Within the past few decades there were struggles over the most disturbing, wrenching things that went to society’s inmost ties, to the makeup of the family, to relations between husband and wife, parent and child. They called into question interlocked patterns of authority, the instilled respect for parents and teachers and officers of the law. They were resisted, advocated, articulated, household by household, and the struggle is far from over. Generations overlap. The losing side has enclaves where it is still in the majority. Many try to deny that changes have taken place at all or that they are permanent. President Reagan speaks for that denial when he claims that the social values of the past have not been eroded or discredited.
But the sexual revolution, for instance, has occurred, despite those who believe that sexual roles will resume their old configuration if we just stop talking about them. Don’t mention condoms in schools, these people insist, don’t discuss AIDS in front of the children, keep it out of the media, don’t bring it up. There is an aching desire to return to some of the social taboos, the unspoken arrangements that once kept people in their place. This is reflected in the fad for Allan Bloom’s book The Closing of the American Mind , arguing as it does that exposure to more than one culture system destroys the very idea of morality.
Our society in general is questioning past attitudes toward race, gender, and authority, and sex is one of the most touchy but inevitable arenas where this self-questioning goes forward. One clear sign of that was the advice of some people to Gary Hart. They thought he should have immediately said, “Of course, 1 slept with Donna Rice. So what?” That reflects the attitude of many in our society, and it shows that what some see as prying into one man’s privacy is seen by others as a vindication of what they believe is acceptable. After all, we live in a time when many respected figures live openly together in what used to be called sin. Barney Frank and others openly say that they are gay, that there is nothing wrong with that, that they have nothing to be ashamed of. That is not a position that would be as acceptable in many places as it is in Frank’s Boston area. But it puts homosexuals in a difficult position—should they be ashamed of being ashamed? If it is all right for a gay person to be a political candidate, shouldn’t one fight to establish that right rather than hide from the struggle? Yet who has the right to compel another to enlist in such a way? The questions circle back and back on each other. And in an open society all such shifting evaluations are expressed through the media, our forum for encountering each other as members of the same large and disagreeing community. The rules are changing for everyone, whether one wants to admit that or not. Parents admit it when they accept the new sexual behavior of their children, if only by averting their eyes from it. Society’s consensus is distributed, with large areas of change and equally large enclaves of resistance. That is how profound social alteration, going deep into moral attitudes, is always effected.
So candidates are rightly confused. They are caught in a social situation where conflicting signals are being sent, clashing attitudes expressed; where there is widespread disagreement on fundamental premises. The presidential race itself is one of the ways this country decides what kind of society it wants to be, what symbols it will honor, what authority figures it finds persuasive. It always mattered that the nominee for President was male, white, Protestant, presumably happily married (but only once), and presumably heterosexual. In fact, it was always decisive to be most or all of those things. If you were not, you were simply out of the running from the outset. There were race and gender assumptions so securely in place that they never had to be brought up. There was little discussion of a candidate’s private life because the range of a candidate’s options in his private life was so narrow.