What's especially interesting is the question, What is it that arouses political curiosity? The front page story in USA Today features a day in the life of Bill Clinton. He is cruising up to his office in Harlem, which he visits "two or three times a month." He is busy, the reporter tells us, writing his memoirs, for which he has been promised $12 million. He needs that income, the president tells the reporter, because of the burden of his legal bills. We learn that these come to $11 million. That is a great deal of money, a cool estimate of what is required to seduce a girl, lie about it, defend oneself against her and other succubi who ensnared him. It is lucky that he is so live a figure on the speaking circuit where, the reporter tells us, he fetches $150,000 per night. Two nights of that and you have almost as much as a president gets paid in one year.
So what if John Kerry was lying about the attachment to the girl now spooning in Kenya? The public paying Mr. Clinton megabucks for the least feel of him would not care. If Kerry slept around, what is possible is that he will attract press attention. What is certain is that it would not block his nomination.
It used to be otherwise. Senator Gary Hart lost a crack at the nomination when he whisked off a girl aboard a yacht called, if you can stand it, "Monkey Business." That ride in that boat put a kind of edge on Senator Hart's professions of innocence, but most historians would probably agree that his mortal offense was not what he did to the girl, but what he did to the press, denying everything and then posing all but nude disporting with the girl.
The reason sex scandals attract attention isn't that the public is horrified at the thought of infidelity by a president. What gives the story lift is, simply, sex. Sex and the politician has every reason to expect as much attention as "Sex in the City."
Meanwhile, George W. Bush was having his own troubles with scandal. It was not charged that in l972-73 he was off to Alabama with a girl. The charge was that while serving with the National Guard in Alabama, he paid flighty attention to routine obligations. He got one or more leaves to involve himself in a political campaign, and one general, with a name Charles Dickens would have lost sleep for not having invented, said he had no memory of Lieutenant Bush serving in his squadron. Later, General Turnipseed said, well, he couldn't actually swear on the matter, and a flurry of other reports from others who had flown with Bush and seen him here and there doing National Guard duty checked in, certifying to his presence.
The accusation had more throw weight than marital infidelity because if it were so, there could emerge a charge of retroactive neglect of duty. But the effort to impeach the credibility of a functioning president on the grounds that 30 years before he had taken shortcuts while on stateside military duty will be hard to do. Here is the way those things work out in politics. The voter who doesn't like Bush will denounce him as, among other things, the man who neglected military duty. The voter who doesn't like John Kerry may vote against him, among other reasons, because he drove the girl to Kenya to find a husband.
What we are reminded of in these games is the public indifference to other kinds of deceit, like Howard Dean's and John Kerry's three positions on Iraq. The Democratic platform is shaping up as a call to national rejection of President Bush as a man who cannot be trusted. He is not to be believed to care about health or veterans or old people or education or international allies -- because he cannot be trusted.
As for John Kerry, he can be trusted, never mind his cakewalks on army service, the Vietnam War, the national responsibility for deterring enemy activity, and a basic commitment to property rights. If only every political allegation involved sex, we could then at least enjoy the titillation.