Sex and the Capital City

From Richard A. Clarke's suspicious "bachelorhood" to Hester Prynne's sin, Americans have been too willing to sexualize politics


If you were in Washington, D.C. last week (as I was), the big nudge-nudge-wink-wink rumor was about how the Bush administration was going to out Richard A. Clarke as part of their scorched-earth rebuttal of the former counterterrorism czar's incendiary charges regarding the White House's pre- and post-9/11 policies. Everyone I talked with, it seemed, was laying odds on whether such a revelation might hurt the Bush or Kerry people more (for most D.C. denizens, until the November election, every revelation, disaster, or event matters only to the extent it impacts the presidential race). Forget that no one had any reliable—or even "semi-reliable"—sources that could be named in substantiating claims that Clarke is in fact gay or that the Bushites were about to out him. Such technicalities were less important than mooning over Clarke's possible predilections and how his highly media-genic saga might play out.

Whether Rummy or Condi or Dick or some low-level flunky is actually going to try to name Clarke as a bridesmaid at the secret wedding of Keanu Reeves and David Geffen remains to be seen, but it's not a stretch to figure that a president—even or perhaps especially one who is a former cheerleader—who supports an anti-gay-marriage constitutional amendment would figure that calling somebody homosexual would somehow discredit their foreign policy expertise.

Another reason the rumor, totally unsourced, seemed so eminently plausible is that political operatives have always been quick to make charges of "sexual deviancy" in order to shut people up, tear people down, or toss people aside. Forget about the 1990s, the barely repressed Decade of the Penis, which started with talk of Long Dong Silver, Clarence Thomas, and Anita Hill, and ended with tutorials on Peyronie's Disease, Bill Clinton, and short-lived Speaker of the House Bob Livingstone's phone-sex compulsion. (What is it that former interns say about the '90s? If you weren't exposed to a hostile workplace situation, you weren't really there?)

No, instead, go read Allen Drury's surprisingly neglected 1959 political potboiler Advise and Consent, which holds the record for longevity on the The New York Times bestseller list and whose plot turns on a revelation of homosexuality. Or recall Whittaker Chambers, whose testimony against Alger Hiss was challenged in part because of a gay past. Or consider Roy Cohn, the aide to Sen. Joseph McCarthy, whose alternative sexuality provided the subtext for the Army-McCarthy hearings that spectacularly ended Tailgunner Joe's career).

In fact, what might be called the sexualizing of political dissent is in fact such an All-American trope that it predates the U.S. Constitution by a century and a half. The ur-text here is what some schoolkids still learn about as "The Antinomian Controversy of 1636-38," the trial of religious dissenter Anne Hutchinson in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Hutchinson, the subject of a new biography well worth reading, essentially accused the theocrats running Massachusetts of acting Catholic by teaching a "a covenant of works" rather than a "covenant of grace." In colonial America, those were fighting words and John Cotton, John Winthrop, and other rulers put Hutchinson on trial, eventually expelling her (she ended up settling in Rhode Island, under the protection of that other great New England dissenter and advocate of toleration, Roger Williams).

In today's America—where even anti-Papist evangelicals flock to see a hard-core Catholic version of The Passion of the Christ—the doctrinal disputes at play in Hutchinson's trial are less relevant than charges of sexual deviance. From the start—and without evidence—her accusers smeared her as an advocate of free love and other carnal improprieties. As Salon's Laura Miller notes in a review of Eve La Plante's American Jezebel, "The fact that [Hutchinson] was willing to stand before the court and debate religious matters got somehow mixed up with whorishness in the mind of more than one male observer." Indeed, at one point the colony's elders actually dug up one of Hutchinson's miscarriages, convinced that it would somehow prove she'd had relations with the devil himself.

Strangely, even Hutchinson's admirers sexualized her challenge to reigning political power: Most famously, Nathaniel Hawthorne, the guilt-ridden descendant of Salem witch-burners, transformed Hutchinson into arguably the best-know female protagonist in American letters, The Scarlet Letter's Hester Prynne. Pace Henry Kissinger, power may or may not be the "ultimate aphrodisiac," but it's clear that threats to power often give way to dirty talk in a way that shines a harsh light on the American political tradition. Here's hoping that Richard Clarke's challenge to White House policy is evaluated on its merits—or lack of them—and not on some other tawdrier, inconsequential grounds.