Strange, strange essay by Michael Wolff in the newest Vanity Fair.
Its very premise is strange, Wolff seems to have a strange conception of who is middle-aged and what it is to be middle-aged, and he includes an anecdote that is strange in itself and which is very strange of him to have bought and passed along, but I'll get to that.
First, the strange premise. We are all fascinated by the sex lives of elderly politicians and spend our time wondering about what they do in bed.
Politics is now about sex. Not just scandalous sex, not just who is having what kind of sex, but what we think about the sex each politician is having, or not having. Sex (sex, not gender) in politics is as significant a subtext as race...
We want to know. That’s a big part of Bill Clinton’s legacy: there’s always a sexual explanation. We’re savvy. Sex completes the picture—it explains so much. Tim Russert and other Sunday-talk-show hosts might maintain the illusion that politics is, or should be, a formal dialogue about impersonal issues, with sex only a topic of surprise, scandal, and shocked-shockedness, but in real life everybody is constantly and openly speculating on the sexual nature and needs and eccentricities of every rising and demanding political personality.
Can't recall that I have.
Doesn't seem to come up very often on the blogs I read either.
Lots of talk about health care plans, gas tax holidays, the collapse of the economy, and isn't there a war we're involved in somewhere?
People I know in the analog world don't seem to be doing that kind of speculating either or thinking that "there's always a sexual explanation."
My mother called me up just before the New York primary to ask me my opinion on Obama and Clinton. She didn't want to know which one I thought was sexier.
The only people I know who have done any speculating on the question are journalists like David Broder, Patrick Healy in that voyeruistic article for the New York Times about how much alone time Bill and Hillary were managing, and now Michael Wolff.
The Hillary story is—and how could it not be?—largely a sexual one. This is not so much a sexist view as a sexualist view: What’s up here? What’s the unsaid saying? What’s the vibe? Although it’s not discussed in reputable commentary, it’s discussed by everyone else: so what exactly is the thing with Hillary and sex, with the consensus being that she simply must not have it (at least not with her husband; there are, on the other hand, the various conspiracy scenarios of whom else she might have had it with). It’s partly around this consensus view of her not having sex that people support her or resist her. She’s the special-interest candidate of older women—the post-sexual set. She’s resisted by others (including older women who don’t see themselves as part of the post-sexual set) who see her as either frigid or sexually shunned—they turn from her inhibitions and her pain.
I shouldn't speak ill of the dead since by now a mob of "the post-sexual set" has probably dragged him from his office in the Conde Nast building and hauled him uptown to Central Park where they've hung him up by his genetalia from Cleopatra's Needle, but that paragraph alone should consign Wolff to his shrink's couch for several hundred hours of psychoanalytic unraveling.
Listen, normal people do not speculate about the sex lives of politicians and not because we're all that virtuous or prudish or hypocritical or because most politicians are not very pretty and picturing them in the sack causes us to shudder.
It's because normal people do not spend their time speculating on other people's sex lives. It's the mental equivalent of being able to walk by our neighbors' houses at night without having to rush up to press our noses against each and every lighted window.
Part of what scandalizes us about political sex scandals is that they force us to consider things we don't think it's any of our business to consider...things like Eliot Spitzer's socks.
For people who do want to speculate on the sex lives of strangers, that's why we have movie stars and teenage pop idols, who are at least blessed with beautiful and photogenic naked backs and bare shoulders. But even among the most gossip-addicted readers of People and the National Enquirer, the real interest is in the romantic lives of their favorites. The sex is part and parcel. And the point is to live vicariously through the likes of Brad and Angelina.
And it's not so much the case that people want to be Brad and Angelina as they want to be what Brad and Angelina are, beautiful, rich, famous, and adored, living lives in which romantic misadventures are the worst of their worries.
With very few exceptions---Jack and Jackie Kennedy, Bill and Hillary Clinton in their prime---most people do not look to politicians for the same vicarious thrills and escapes into fantasy as they do movie stars.
We want our politicians to represent us but that's far from saying we want them to stand in for us as surrogate selves. We hire them to do a job and our interest in them is in how well they do that job and that's why, to the consternation of the professional scolding class in the Media, we often don't care at all about their personal oddnesses.
Wolff, though, believes otherwise. Stranger than this, however, is Wolff's contention that while we're all imagining our political leaders naked we're creeped out by what we're imagining and what creeps us out is the fact that all these naked politicians are middle-aged.
Middle-agedness is in itself creepy. To be middle-aged is to be grotesque, repulsive, and ridiculous, and all of this creepiness, grotesquery, repulsiveness, and ridiculousness is, tautologically, both caused by middle-aged sexuality and makes sex in middle-age creepy, grotesque, repulsive, and ridiculous.
Which, according to Wolff, is why folks like Barack Obama so much. He's not middle-aged.
There is next to no speculation about Barack Obama’s sexual secrets. This is a seismic shift in racial subtext. The white men are the sexual reprobates and loose cannons (while Mitt and Hillary are just strange birds) and the black man the figure of robust middle-class family warmth.
Against these middle-aged people, he’s the naturalist, the credible and hopeful figure of a man who actually might be having sex with his smiling, energetic, and oomphy wife. (During the Spitzer affair, a friend of mine, a middle-aged white doctor and an active Obama supporter, curiously dropped into something like street talk to say Obama would never have the sex problems of middle-aged politicians, “because Michelle would whip his skinny ass.” A good man, in other words, is a controlled man.) He’s the only one in the entire field who doesn’t suggest sexual desperation. He represents our ideal of what a good liberal’s sex life ought to be.
A couple more paragraphs for Wolff to talk over with a professional, but note that, besides the strange racial and marital hang-ups, Wolff is saying that we don't have to worry about Obama making himself ridiculous or creepy in our dirty minds' eyes because he and his wife are young and good looking, as if no one with an "oomphy" spouse would ever be tempted to anything besides healthy, uncreepy, monogamous and conjugal sex.
This is in an essay that includes discussions of the sex lives of John Kennedy and Eliot Spitzer, both of whose spouses rate fairly high on the oomphy-scale.
But JFK and Spitzer cheated on their oomphy wives and, as the title of Wolff's article gigglingly proclaims, "It's the adultery, stupid."
(Wolff says Obama is young. But he's only two years younger than Eliot Spitzer and, if and when he's sworn in as President, he will be older than John Kennedy was when he died. Wolff also calls the 65 year old Fred Thompson middle-aged.)
Adultery, here, is what makes middle-aged sex creepy. Forget that. Adultery is middle-aged sex. Adultery is also the defining characteristic of middle-age.
Middle-aged sex is middle-aged men making fools of themselves by cheating on their wives.
Middle-aged women cheating on their husbands don't exist in Wolff's article. Hillary Clinton is an object of sexual curiosity only because when we look at her we can't help thinking about what Bill is up to and what thong-flashing young woman he might be up to it with.
Wolff is limited to a degree by the examples he has to draw on. Politics is still a male-dominated world. But go back up to that passage I quoted where Wolff describes Hillary Clinton as the "special interest candidate of...the post-sexual set." He's saying that middle-aged women are done with sex.
Actually, look over his description of the Obama marriage and you'll see that he doesn't seem to think that even a young woman like Michelle Obama has a real interest in sex for the sake of pleasure or love---young women use sex to keep their men in line; older women, having lost all sexual desire, no longer have control over their men, and that's why those men make fools of themselves in the beds of younger women or men, which would seem to imply that Mrs Senator Larry Craig could have kept her husband out of airport bathrooms if she'd still been willing to get nasty with him.
Middle-aged sex is defined by male desire and adultery, and besides being ridiculous and repugnant it is pathetic.
Now, why Wolff thinks we are fascinated by the sex lives of the ugly, pathetic, and foolish is beyond me. As I said, for those who want to live vicariously through the sexual and romantic psychodramas of strangers we have movie stars. And for those who get off on fantasies about what strangers are actually doing when they get naked we have pornography. Why then anyone would waste a minute contemplating what John and Cindy McCain might enjoy when all the kids are out or in bed and they turn the lights down low is a mystery.
I can guess where he gets the idea that people are indulging themselves with such unerotic erotica.
It sells newspapers and it sells ads on TV.
When criticized about the Media's obsession with sex and scandal and other trivial pursuits, various Media types will defend themselves and their industries by claiming something along the lines of "We're only giving the public what it wants!" Which isn't much of a defense in the mouths of the heirs of P.T. Barnum. In the mouths of the supposed heirs of Edward R. Murrow it ought to cause their tongues to snap off their rollers.
But some people will buy anything and there are nearly 300 million people in this country. A very small percentage of 300 million is still an awful lot of people. If you make a buck off of just one percent, that's 3 million smackers right in your pocket.
Besides the fact that getting rich off of exploiting suckers doesn't tell you anything about the people who didn't buy your snake oil, there is also a chicken and the egg question to consider. Are you selling what the people want or are the people buying because that's all you've got to sell them?
You can't tell what the public wants from what some members of the public buy. What you can see is that our National Press Corps is very interested in the sex lives of the politicians it covers, whether that's because they're all a bunch of hacks who think it's their job to feed the suckers a steady diet of sex and scandal or because it's the members of the Press Corps themselves who have this very strange compulsion to openly speculate on how soon Bill will embarrass Hillary with another bimbo eruption and to swoon over the size of George Bush's package and tell us that Jerri Thompson looks like a pole dancer and assure us that John McCain must be a vital old codger because well, look at his wife, for crying out loud!
Journalism is a voyeuristic endeavor by nature and reporters have to be in a way and to a degree spies and gossips, and just as among the ranks of shoe salesmen there are bound to be foot fetishists, journalism probably attracts a fair share of Peeping Toms.
But over the last few decades, as the coverage of national politics has become more obsessive and endless it has also become more and more driven by the superficial and easily managed---process has trumped policy and personality has trumped both. It's a whole lot easier to employ some cheap Freudianism---"Sex explains everything"---than to try to find out and explain what any given candidate for any office actually plans to do when elected.
I'm not saying that the sexual misadventures of politicians are never news. (I would argue that it's not the sex but the corruption and mis- and malfeasance that are often contingent upon the misadventure that make the sex news. Rudy Giuliani's cheating on his wife is none of my business except that he got the City to pay for it. I don't care if John McCain had an affair with a lobbyist; I do care if he was bought off by the corporate interests on whose behalf she was lobbying. And as for Eliot Spitzer, well, being stupid has never been a disqualification for holding elected office, but breaking the law while being stupid...?) But sex doesn't explain everything.
It's a matter of character, they'll say. JFK's recklessness about sex should have told us how reckless he'd be in office. Reckless? Really? Does that explain why he was so cautious about Civil Rights? Does that explain why he didn't get us all blown up in October of 1962? Wait a minute. How about the space race and his decision to set us on the challenge of putting a man on the moon before the end of the decade? He was sex obsessed and what are rockets anyway if they aren't the ultimate phallic symbol?
So, speaking of JFK, that brings me to the final strangeness in Wolff's essay.
Kennedy had affairs with Angie Dickinson and Marilyn Monroe. It's been reported that he used to go skinny dipping in the White House pool with various young women who worked in the Executive Offices. If there was a politician whose sex life might reward the temptation to openly speculate about it as if he was a movie star like Errol Flynn, it was JFK.
So what story does Wolff tell us about Kennedy's sex life? A distinctly non-erotic one concocted to make JFK look creepy.
There is a story Gore Vidal tells about J.F.K.: having sex in the bath, he liked to suddenly push a woman’s head back underwater, causing her to fight for air, just as he was about to climax.
I'm not saying this never happened, but...I don't think it ever happened.
Well, first because Kennedy's back was so bad he couldn't have managed it, and second because the source of the story is Gore Vidal.
I wouldn't call Vidal a liar, but I have suspected him of embellishing his anecdotes on occasion. And he also has some issues when it comes to John F. Kennedy. Vidal wrote a novel, Washington, D.C., in which he implies that Kennedy's heroics after the sinking of PT-109 were made up. The Kennedy-esque politican who is the anti-hero of the novel is a phony war hero. When I first read the book back in college I just figured Vidal was engaging in a wicked game of "What if?" and consciously making fiction by imagining an alternative reality. But then Vidal announced upon the publication of The Golden Age, the novel that concludes a historical cycle that begins with Burr, in which George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and other heroes of the Revolution are portrayed as clowns and scoundrels, that he wrote that FDR more or less engineered the bombing of Pearl Harbor to get us into World War II not out of a sense of wicked fun or as a game of What If? but because he believes that FDR engineered the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
In short, Vidal doesn't see himself as a satirist writing fiction. He sees himself as a realist writing history.
Kind of forces the question, is the Kennedy character in Washington D.C. based on Vidal's conception of John Kennedy or is Vidal's conception of John Kennedy based on the character in Washington D.C.?
Vidal has apparently lost track of the boundary between fiction and history or has decided he doesn't have to bother keeping track, which ought to warn people not to take the stories he tells about real human beings without a Morton's box full of salt. You can never be sure if he's not talking about a character in one of his own novels instead.
But here's the thing.
As Bob Somerby has been pointing out for a long while now and as Elizabeth Edwards has recently noted the National Press Corps covers politics as if they are writing a novel and interpreting that novel at the same time. Which means they are treating politicians as if they were fictional characters.
And with fictional characters, sex does explain everything.
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