Are powerful men especially prone to affairs?

To follow is an excerpt from the CQ Researcher report on "Sex Scandals" by Alan Greenblatt, January 22, 2010.

From his adolescence through his foreshortened presidency, John F. Kennedy “didn't have to lift a finger to attract women,” as one reporter put it. “They were drawn to him in battalions.” [Footnote 4] Kennedy's close friend Lem Billings recalled that the president's sexual conquests were not just fun but important to him as “a form of being successful at something.” [Footnote 5]

Kennedy, aware that his father was a notable philanderer, sought to follow in his footsteps. As Joseph Kennedy had, JFK felt multiple liaisons were his just due as a powerful man. “Jack's easy conquests compounded the feeling that, like the member of a privileged aristocracy, of a libertine class, he was entitled to seek out and obtain what he craved, instantly … from the object of his immediate affection,” writes his biographer Robert Dallek. [Footnote 6]

One school of thought holds that the lust for power is related to sexual lust. For millennia, suggests Florida Atlantic University evolutionary psychologist Todd Shackleford, the underlying motivation for males in taking risks and achieving power and status was to become attractive in order to woo and win women. “It's a relatively new development for men to be vilified for reaping what would have been ancestral rewards for power and prestige,” he told The Washington Post. [Footnote 7]

What may be true for powerful men in general is even more so for politicians, who constantly meet new people and must make themselves attractive and likable to strangers. “Generally, people who want to be politicians are craving the spotlight,” says Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “No matter how ugly and unattractive you are, as a senator you'll have plenty of groupies, and you're away from home a lot.”

“Politicians are different,” said Schwartz, the University of Washington sociologist. “How many of us would have the desire, much less the ability, to promote ourselves ceaselessly? You have to do that as a politician. It's an amazing level of self-love … and a need for affirmation.” [Footnote 8]

Charles Goodstein, a psychiatrist at New York University, contends that “it's almost mandatory” for successful politicians to possess a “healthy narcissism” — what most people call confidence. “People don't arrive at these positions if they're passive or let other people take credit,” Goodstein says. “They have a certain aggressiveness and a certain degree of healthy narcissism.”

“Having all these attractive women around you constantly … appeals to people with a narcissism issue, and I guess to any man,” says Lavoll, the Northwestern psychologist. “You have to be firm not to fall into the trap. It's hard to achieve that fantasy of being special and then not to act on it.”

W. Keith Campbell, a University of Georgia psychologist, says that there's something to the joke that “politics is show business for ugly people. If you're powerful, even if you look like a beluga whale in a suit, you're going to be far more attractive to people than you were in high school,” Campbell says.

Nevertheless, Campbell suggests, there's no data to prove that politicians are more likely to cheat than other men. It's hard to get good data about adultery or infidelity in general, largely because people are not likely to be honest when answering social-science surveys about such matters.

“Overall, the best estimates are that between 15 percent and 40 percent of men will cheat at some point in their first marriage — best guess, 25 percent — whereas about 5 percent to 25 percent of women will cheat at some point in their first marriage — best guess, 15 percent,” said psychologist David Schmitt of Bradley University in Peoria, Ill. [Footnote 9]

Although it sometimes seems that every other politician has been caught in an affair, the percentage who are exposed is actually far less than 15 percent. Politicians may appear to engage in more illicit sex than, say, carpenters or dentists because they dominate cable news coverage when caught, and the average Joe doesn't.

Politicians are “subject to more scrutiny, and they also have enemies who are eager to put this into public view,” says John J. Pitney Jr., a political scientist at California's Claremont McKenna College. “In the private world, opposition research usually takes the form of something like corporate espionage. One company will seldom [put investigators] on the ex-wives of executives,” the way political opponents might.

“If you're in office — senators and congressmen — you can think of all the social pressure not to have an affair,” Campbell says. “The consequences are so vast. It's not just your family that suffers, but your party, your office, your country.”

Still, despite being fully aware of the potential ramifications, many politicians remain convinced that they can get away with just about anything — or at least are unable to resist temptation. “In certain contexts, in certain situations, the environment almost feeds into this kind of narcissism, and simple confidence is transformed into people seeing themselves as legends in their own minds,” Goodstein says. “They can get away with anything, because of who they are. It's risk-taking that knows no bounds.”

“I do not think politicians are less moral than other people,” says Tom Fiedler, dean of the College of Communication at Boston University and former executive editor of The Miami Herald. But elected officials are more often subject to what Catholics call “occasions of sin,” so they are “presented with more opportunities for these types of transgressions than other people.

“When temptation rears its head,” he concludes, “not all of us are strong enough not to give in.”
The Issues
* Do the media pay too much attention to adultery?
* Does the public have a right to know about politicians' affairs?
* Do celebrities deserve more privacy than public officials?

For more information see the CQ Researcher report on "Sex Scandals" [subscription required] or purchase the CQ Researcher PDF.

[4] Robert Dallek, An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917–1963 (2003), p. 48.
[5] Ibid., p. 46.
[6] Ibid., p. 46.
[7] David Segal, “Blame It on the Primal Brain of Homo Politicus,” The Washington Post, March 13, 2008, p. C1.
[8] Sharon Jayson, “Narcissism Is in the Cards for Many Politicians,” USA Today, Sept. 29, 2009, p. 10B.
[9] Sharon Jayson, “Why Some Men Keep Cheating,” USA Today, Dec. 8, 2009, p. 10B.