Sex is almost always the loser in a scandal. Heaped with scorn, muddied and defiled, it sinks to the basement of our collective imagination—its vain cries, “I am not an animal; I am a human need,” muffled by the gag in its mouth, the bars across the basement door, the blahdeeblahblah of titillation, resentment and ridicule pouring from the TV.
It is difficult amid the most recent clatter, but let’s pretend that Herman Cain was just an ordinary millionaire, selling pizza, gifted with a radioman’s talent for gab, playing every angle to get attention and sell books. Let’s pretend that he was, in fact, Herman Cain before Rick Perry opened his mouth and his brains fell out. No one anticipated that, maybe least of all Cain, whose campaign really was a book tour. While Perry courted Iowa and New Hampshire, while Rick Santorum—who’d been sharing the lower rungs in the polls with Cain— was on his way to visiting every one of Iowa’s counties, Cain visited a Costco in Virginia, signed books and met football fans in Tennessee and Alabama, sold more books in Texas and had nineteen open days on his October schedule.
Bookseller Cain had a couple of sexual harassment settlements in his past, but those were a businessman’s irritant, akin to a fine for toxic waste or any other pesky outgrowth of the regulatory regime that his party has sworn to dismantle. Why should he worry? The payouts were relatively small. He had contractual stipulations of silence and, more important, was welcome in a brotherhood that included Bill O’Reilly. The loofah lothario had panted into a Fox producer’s telephone, disclosing his abrasive fantasies to her secret tape recorder, and then paid handsomely to ditch a harassment suit, but there he was, bullish as ever, ratings strong, presidents honoring him with their time.
The same brotherhood included Newt Gingrich, who infamously laid down terms of divorce to his first wife in a hospital as she recovered from cancer surgery, who left his second wife for another after she was diagnosed with MS, and who married a Congressional aide with whom he’d cavorted while indicting Bill Clinton for lying about sex. At a candidates’ Thanksgiving Family Forum in Des Moines, while Cain confessed to “a series of little failures rather than one big disaster,” Newt resisted the chance for a proper mea culpa but extolled his wonderful life with Callista and urged the audience to pursue happiness in the eighteenth-century manner, seeking “wisdom and virtue, not hedonism and acquisition.” A historian of convenience, he twice exalted eighteenth-century virtue, as if that wouldn’t, or shouldn’t, invoke thoughts of the price the pursuit of happiness had exacted in the slave quarters, but then Gingrich has no more apparent concern for American contradictions than for the contradictions of his own life.
Marriage and God had saved Newt, which is exactly what the forum’s Christian co-sponsors wanted to hear. One of them, an Iowa group called The Family Leader, dedicated to saving the family from the scourges of homosexuality, infidelity, abortion, “quickie divorce” and Sharia law, urged every candidate to sign “The Marriage Vow: A Declaration of Dependence Upon Marriage and Family.” Neither Cain nor Gingrich signed on (perhaps it was enough that Newt had funneled $150,000 to a campaign in which The Family Leader was prominent, to defeat Iowa Supreme Court justices who’d upheld equal protection for gay couples). The vow’s first item is “personal fidelity to my spouse,” and then it goes on to appropriate the liberals’ language of human rights and resistance to “anti-woman” repression in order to make “faithful heterosexual monogamy” the iron rule.