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.
Now Cain has fallen from grace, and Newt is the Republican front-runner. For Cain, the specter of a sexual life parallel to marriage—forty-three years with Gloria and thirteen concurrent with Ginger White—was the instant disqualifier. For Gingrich, it is enough that he assume the pose of the Chosen: David to Callista’s Bathsheba, with all the cruelties and mendacity resolved by the Almighty’s favor and a pleasing wife: third time’s a charm. “It doesn’t matter what I do,” Newt once said, as his second wife, Marianne, recalled for an article earlier this year in Esquire. “People need to hear what I have to say. There’s no one else who can say what I can say. It doesn’t matter what I live.” Gingrich sees himself in the line of biblical kings; Cain is just… Cain.
It is not ironic that neither man could hew to faithful monogamy; it is pathetic that once again it takes a scandal to reveal human nature as fundamentally nonmonogamous, and once again humans run from its implications—at least those who fashion the retail story lines.
Among everyday people, the talk is quite different. In kitchens and coffee shops, in bars and checkout lines and phone conversations, people approach the mess of life at the heart of the Cain story with a back-and-forth honesty that is far more acute than what’s discussed at any media roundtable or political family forum. The people I talked with or overheard don’t solve the problem of love and sex and family; they don’t venture to answer how to live a kind and honest sexual life in a dishonest world, but their conversation does spring sex from the basement. Call these multiple voices, recollected here, a chorale for the end of Cain:
Hell, people need sex. They need it like food, like water, but no one would say, “You may eat only this dish; you must drink only Poland Spring.”… Now, we don’t know whether Gloria wasn’t giving it up, or Herman just wanted variety. People say he was always away on business, and Gloria liked it that way. Maybe she did. He’s said he regrets not having spent more time at home, but maybe Gloria didn’t mind. The truth is, sometimes you are glad to see the back of your man’s head…. Yeah, but you still might be mad, or hurt. And maybe she did mind. It doesn’t mean you won’t stick with him through cancer. It doesn’t mean you’re staying together just by duty, though there is that, too…. Someone somewhere said, “They were old school; they stayed.” Maybe, and staying just to stay can wear you out, but, you know, they might love each other…. He didn’t tell Ginger he loved her; she was straight-up about that. It was a sexual relationship. Now what is wrong with that? She said, “He offered excitement, he offered gifts.” Not bad. They stayed in nice hotels; he sent her tickets to meet him places; he helped her pay her bills…. At that forum he said, “Freedom without responsibility is immoral,” said it two times like he had to remind himself. Hell, he’s been responsible…. People have been saying, “A ho’s gotta be paid.” That’s not fair, and it’s disrespectful, period. Thirteen years they kept it on track; shit happens between people over thirteen years, even if it’s supposed to be no strings. Then he decides to run for president! However close she kept things all those years, she told three people, forget it; there are no secrets…. You wonder what he said to her when she got anxious. You wonder if he talked to his “brothers from another mother,” and they said, “That’s it.”… It’s insane that this finishes him, not his cockamamie ideas; a couple of weeks ago 61 percent of Republicans said the harassment didn’t matter. This country is insane about sex. If it elevates Newt, it will be certifiable.