Capital Letters: Marriage Penalty

In which our man in Washington learns about conservative sex, Thomas Jefferson's HMO woes, and back-alley bookies.


Date: 1/21/2000 4:20:37 PM
Subj: Marital Bliss

"Nothing in the view of marriage and sexual morality that I am sketching excludes various forms of playful and affectionate foreplay to marital intercourse. Nor does the traditional view have any implications whatsoever for who, if anybody, should be on top of whom in the marital embrace. It carries no brief for the missionary position." So explained Princeton political philosophy professor Robert P. George to a packed house at the American Enterprise Institute.

George was about 30 minutes into his Bradley Lecture, "What's Sex Got to Do with It: Marriage, Morality, and Rationality." It is considered a revealed truth among conservatives that marriage is threatened from many forces, especially gays who want to marry. And gays who don't. Then there's the straights who shack up instead of walking down the aisle. And don't even get them started on married people who want divorces.

Citing an earlier lecture by James Q. Wilson, George explained that it all went bad when individuals, not families, started to choose marital partners. Then came the "tradition-trumping rationalist impulse" of the Enlightenment and pretty soon marriage was a "mere contract," and "sex outside the bond of marriage" was "understood [as] some sort of Constitutional right." A Constitutional right? What country is he from?

George is really bothered by folks who view marriage as "merely an instrumental human good." That is, he's upset with people who look at marriage as a means to an end, the end being something that makes them happy: a family, companionship, a robust sex life. If you agree with David Hume that there are no such things as intrinsic goods, says George, such a view makes sense. But Hume's all wrong, insists the Princeton prof, who prefers Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas. If one adopts their philosophy, then marriage turns out to be something else altogether.

Curiously, that something else seems to be mostly about sex. At times George sounded like Larry Flynt under the spell of Eastern mysticism. Marriage, he said, needs to be recognized as "a one-flesh communion of persons that is consummated and actualized by acts that are reproductive in type, if not in effect or even desire to conceive a child." For George, such a "one-flesh communion" is an "intrinsic human good." When it comes to sex, individuals are just "potential parts of a mated pair." "The reproductive act" is accomplished not by individuals, but by a pair, united in "one-flesh unity."

Of course, George maintained, only married folks can merge in such unity, which I gather is why marriage is an end, not just a means to an end, and, conveniently, why only straight people are capable of such "one-flesh unity."

Such talk may make the Princeton coeds come around during office hours, but as George carried on, the mostly male crowd at AEI started to get fidgety, especially when he came down hard on oral sex, even in the context of a marital embrace. "Masturbatory, sodomitical, and other sexual acts which are not reproductive in type, cannot unite persons organically," said George, who obviously has never spent a night marinating in Amsterdam's red-light district.

Date: 1/26/2000 8:39:08 AM
Subj: Second Bests

Over at the White House, President Clinton was hosting the U.S. women's soccer team, best known for winning last year's World Cup and then showing off their sports bras. The point was to highlight the inequities women suffer in America's semi-free labor markets and to make a pitch for equal pay. I have no doubt his first choice for the photo op was the women's rugby team from Ohio State University–the gals who famously bared their breasts on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial last November for a fund-raising calendar. But they must have turned the president down. So Bill figured he'd settle for second best and instead invited the sports bra squad to the White House, which I'm sure is lonelier than ever, what with Hillary setting up shop in the Empire State.

After missing the White House event –the press office gave me the wrong time–it was my turn to settle for second best (and a distant second at that). Instead of watching the president ogle America's premier women athletes, I made plans to head to a Chinese restaurant on Capitol Hill to hang with some guys who call themselves the Monday Club. Rep. Charlie Norwood (R-Ga.) was going to explain why heaping federal regulations on managed health care companies is a great idea.

He was, in other words, going to talk about the "Patients Bill of Rights." The issue's polling well and Republicans are trying to figure out how to deal with it. The House and Senate passed different bills last session and it's still undecided which version will prevail. My source on the matter tells me that Congress faces two options. They could pass the Senate version, which fails to give Americans the right to sue their HMOs if they are chartered under a federal law known as ERISA. The president will surely veto that one. Or they can pass the House version, which allows lawsuits but also expands Medical Savings Accounts. That one has the support of congressional Democrats, who will get a cut of any fees earned by trial lawyers, in the form of campaign contributions. And Clinton might actually sign it.

These were the issues I expected Norwood, the Republican sponsor of the House bill, would sort out while I chowed down on chow fun. I was again treated to second best: Norwood was sick, so his press secretary John Stone would talk instead.

The Monday Club, as moderator M. Stanton Evans pointed out, is a conservative cabal whose members generally oppose regulation in the name of the market. Stone's task was to convince this crowd that federal managed care reform is not simply a good thing, but a conservative thing to do.

So Stone spent a lot of time yakking about Thomas Jefferson. "Jefferson in his old age was mighty disillusioned at Monticello," said Stone, in a warm Southern accent. "He had spent his entire life working for a utopian republic modeled after the typical New England village. Common working people would be economically independent and vested with the political ability to control their own destiny."

But by his old age, Stone said, Jefferson was depressed, and not only because he could no longer keep up with Sally Hemings and all those kids. "Jefferson's foundation for individual liberty had been swept clean" by monied interests, said Stone. "We find ourselves in a similar war today," explained Stone. "Every American is technically free to choose where they live, where they work, where their children go to school, and where and what health care services they prefer. All it takes to access this freedom is money in amounts available to only the privileged few."

Stone connected HMO reform with a popular conservative issue, telling the well-fed audience that they can't argue for school choice out of one side of their mouths while arguing against reforming HMOs out of the other. The same holds true for liberals, he said, insinuating that if we give Teddy Kennedy more control over health care he'll somehow be boxed in on school choice. "We can pin them to the mat on this issue," predicted Stone.

A pinned Teddy Kennedy: not a pleasant image to picture while eating.

Date: 2/2/2000 5:39:41 PM
Subj: Bad Bet

At the Russell Senate Office Building, Sens. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) announced legislation to make betting on Olympic, college, high school, and, presumably, Little League sports a federal crime–even if the bet is made legally in Nevada.

Give 'em some credit for nuance: Gambling is not a moral issue, they said, otherwise they would have to oppose it in all its forms. Betting on professional sports, as Brownback summed up, is a "whole other kettle of fish," albeit one with worse odds.

In fact, Brownback and Leahy aren't even against informal (and illegal) gambling on amateur sports–e.g., office pools prompted by March Madness. They're only after legal betting on amateur sports done in Nevada, which they said exists only because of a "loophole" in an earlier federal law. "Illegal bookies are illegal bookies," clarified Leahy helpfully. Even, it seems, when they're legal.

Brownback claimed that betting caused a Northwestern football player to fumble on the one-yard line. (In olden times, simple incompetence accounted for Northwestern turnovers). The senator pointed to a chart that showed how point-shaving scandals have boomed like the stock market: In the 1990s, there were eight such grifts, compared to only one in the 1970s.

Going in, I figured the odds at better than even that one of the senators would invoke "the children" in justifying this plan. I should have doubled down. First Brownback claimed that sports gambling is "gateway behavior for adolescent gambling." Then Leahy waxed nostalgic about how as a parent he would be "sweating bullets" watching his kids compete in high school sports. He never thought the outcome could be affected by someone "sitting in a boiler room," the preferred location, apparently, for junior-varsity betting operations. "We are talking about our kids," implored Leahy.

So what are the chances of this legislation passing? I'm banking on the Nevada delegation getting its way. After all, they know people who know people, if you know what I mean.

Sen. Richard Bryan (D-Nev.) wasn't present at Brownback and Leahy's confab (rumor has it he was checking out the action at a local chess tourney). But he answered Brownback and Leahy's kids talk with an odds-on cliché of his own, darkly warning in a statement that the bill would "push sports betting into the back alleys of America," where bookies would presumably vie with abortionists for office space if any of the Republican presidential candidates actually makes it to the White House.