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Does the Public Forgive and Forget Sex Scandals? : Some politicians and officials fall from grace, while others only seem more human when they admit their transgressions and demonstrate remorse.

August 30, 1995|GREGG ZOROYA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

WASHINGTON — No. 8 on David Letterman's Top Ten things revealed in Newt Gingrich expose: "Will make love to wife only after she says, 'I yield to the congressman from Georgia.' "

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When the sex lives of American leaders aren't making headlines, they're making one-liners. Yet from the moment Thomas Jefferson beckoned slave Sally Hemings to the instant convicted Illinois Rep. Mel Reynolds exulted, "Did I win the Lotto?"--over the prospect of a three-way with a Catholic girl--voters have been dumbfounded as to why these guys take such risks.

Some say it's a sense of entitlement that comes with public office, certainly several levels graduated from getting a free parking space at Washington National Airport.

Others say it is the jungle's alpha-male complex, where the primary chimp wins the right to any female in the pack.

"The whole point of being the alpha male was being able to screw in public," says Robert Hogan, professor of psychology at the University of Tulsa. "Otherwise it's just sneaky sex."

Still others plumb the psyche of a Sen. Bob Packwood and blame his alleged female fondling on a mother who didn't love him and a pair of Coke bottle-sized eyeglasses. Both, Packwood critics contend, contributed to a rotten self-image as a child.

Why these peccadilloes of the mighty find fertile ground in Washington may be due to something Rep. Barney Frank once said: "If you're here full time, it's easier because what you're worried about is exposure back home," the Massachusetts Democrat told Newsweek during a 1989 interview where he admitted paying for the services of male prostitutes. "Washington is a city without constituents."

In the final analysis, politicians may simply be representative in every sense of the word.

"This is human nature," says former Maryland Congressman Robert Bauman, bounced out of office by voters in 1980 after the Republican tried to buy sex from a male prostitute. "We're all humans with the imprint of original sin."

Except that for some, the imprint is more like a tattoo.

Gary Hart, former Colorado senator and 1988 presidential hopeful, used to frolic clandestinely, deny it publicly and challenge the media arrogantly to follow him around and get bored. Reporters promptly found Hart playing skipper to Miami model Donna Rice aboard the good ship Monkey Business and his career in politics slipped beneath the waves.

Now the Democrat is exploring another run for the Senate, past indiscretions be damned.

"He has about as much chance of becoming senator as Joey Buttafuoco," says Bob Ewegen, political columnist for the Denver Post.

But what broils Ewegen and others is this sense that some in power keep one set of rules for themselves and another set of rules for everyone else.

"I think what you find is that members of Congress are so pampered and treated almost like sun kings that what you've got is a class of people who feel they're entitled to anything," says Frank Smist, a former CIA intelligence officer-turned-Senate-staffer-turned-Jesuit- college-political-science-professor. "I mean there's a headiness, a sense of power."

The result, critics say, is that you'll have Ohio Congressman Wayne Hays place Elizabeth Ray on the payroll as an office worker. But she can't type. Or Warren Harding will invite a White House maid into the closet. But she doesn't do any dusting. Or Grover Cleveland will father a child. But not by his wife.

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was never involved in scandal. But he had an intimate appreciation of sex and influence, boasting that "power is the ultimate aphrodisiac" as he escorted beautiful actresses to global soirees.

For Kissinger, it wasn't that power begat sex, but sex--or rather, sexual glamour--that begat power, according to Walter Isaacson, Time magazine editor and author of "Kissinger" (Simon and Schuster, 1992).

"He realized that glamorous women and celebrities enhanced his visibility," Isaacson says. "In a colorless Nixon Administration, he was glamorous and that enhanced his power."

Perhaps an alpha male?

"Way down deep, these people have a desire to let other people know what they are doing," says Tulsa psychologist Hogan.

This might explain that famous birthday party for Jack Kennedy.

"Think of Marilyn Monroe, in her sewn-on dress, singing her delicious birthday tribute to the President on national TV," wrote Washington Post Style reporter Marjorie Williams in a 1991 piece. "It wasn't like an act of sex--it was an act of sex."

But there was a time in history when the public simply averted its eye. At the time, the press didn't dare explain that Franklin Delano Roosevelt suffered his fatal hemorrhage while visiting erstwhile mistress Lucy Mercer Rutherford. And Dwight D. Eisenhower's assignations with Army chauffeur Kay Summersby Morgan during World War II lay unreported until long after his death.

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