Do politicians have to be closed about their openness?
June 7, 2011 7:21 AM   Subscribe

Weinergate wonderings: Can a politician have an open relationship?

All of the Weinergate events, as well as the many (many, many) other politicians who have "cheated" on their wives, make me wonder - are any of these (mostly) men actually in open relationships with their spouses/partners? And are they just not allowed to be open about that with the media? Can a politician be open about an open/poly/etc. relationship and be elected? Are there any examples that you know of?
posted by anya32 to Human Relations (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
anya32: "Can a politician be open about an open/poly/etc. relationship and be elected?"

Sadly, the answer to this right now in the US is no.
posted by Grither at 7:22 AM on June 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

Silvio Berlusconi seems to get away with it, but I'm not sure how accepting of it his wife is.

I think the key phrase in US politics is "family values", and if you don't stand for "family values" - father, mother, 2.5 kids, and a dog - then you don't stand for Real America.
posted by backseatpilot at 7:26 AM on June 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

I find it very hard to believe that Maria Shriver thought she was in a monogamous relationship for all those years.
posted by something something at 7:35 AM on June 7, 2011 [6 favorites]

I'm pretty certain that any politician who publicly led a poly or open lifestyle, however healthy and well adjusted, would be quickly jeered off the scene. That said, a lot of people suspect that the Clintons had, if not an open relationship, at least an "understanding." There's no way Bill could have gotten up to all those shenanigans without Hillary suspecting something; she's just not that dumb.
posted by Faint of Butt at 7:37 AM on June 7, 2011 [6 favorites]

Being able to do something and asking complete strangers for their trust are two completely different things.

If a politician ran their campaign and got elected, with the public knowing about their open/poly relationship, that would probably be OK. I think it would make people upset to spring the knowledge of an "open marriage" on the public after they were elected. It speaks to that person's credibility that they can't be trusted to be honest with the public that elected them.

I'm sure there are tacit agreements between some politicians and their wives (Bill Clinton, after he was caught comes to mind). You'd be naive to think otherwise.
posted by PsuDab93 at 7:37 AM on June 7, 2011

I think, as PsuDab93 alludes, the answer is definitely "yes" and we've had plenty of politicians do it. If the question is can they have an open open relationship? The answer is "no".
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 7:42 AM on June 7, 2011

Depends largely on your definitions of "politician" and "open/poly/etc." For one thing, there are a lot of politicians who conduct affairs that are essentially open secrets -- he doesn't appear in public with the Other Woman, but people on the political beat know that there's a reason that the Distinguished Gentleman stays in D.C. over the weekend more often than his wife does.

Could a state legislator or city councilperson get away with it? Yeah, probably, especially if he or she were in a safe constituency in a solidly red or blue state, where the other party just doesn't bother seriously contesting that particular seat.

Could a member of the U.S. House of Representatives get away with it? Maybe, but he or she would probably have to get elected first, then "come out" without having been "caught." Again, he or she would have to be in a pretty safe district. Rep. Barney Frank has been openly gay for longer than such a thing has been widely accepted, because as much as the red-staters hated him for the sheer fact of his sexuality, the people in his district continue to not care.

Could a member of the U.S. Senate, a Governor or even a President get away with it? Not today, no. But by 2036, yeah, probably.
posted by Etrigan at 7:46 AM on June 7, 2011

Obviously, any answer is going to just be an opinion...but I don't see it happening in my lifetime. I don't see an open atheist getting elected to anything major either.
posted by JoanArkham at 7:56 AM on June 7, 2011

Best answer: David Patterson, who took over for Eliot Spitzer as NY governor, acknowledged having extramarital affairs but so did his wife. So while they never used the term "open marriage" that would seem to be what they have. Of course it should be noted that he did not run for governor himself (he was dissuaded from doing so at the end of his term) and the scrutiny given to lieutenant governor candidates is nothing like that given to those running for governor.
posted by tommasz at 8:01 AM on June 7, 2011 [4 favorites]

Mod note: folks, there is an open MeFi thread on this topic if you want to be chatty. COmments here ned to answer the question. Thank you.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 8:12 AM on June 7, 2011

something something: "I find it very hard to believe that Maria Shriver thought she was in a monogamous relationship for all those years"

I think the same thing about Hillary Clinton.
posted by I am the Walrus at 8:42 AM on June 7, 2011

I think the question is sort of wrong. The question is, can a politician get elected who fully admits they are in an open relationship?

The answer is that if they are gay, it isn't even asked, if they are straight, there are enough straight people who disagree with open relationships or find them immoral. Those persons may vote against such a politician.

There are risks for such a person. Enemies of the politician could attempt to infiltrate an additional lover, thinking that the person is more likely to fall for such a risk because it is OK with his or her wife or husband. If a politician has a baby or a spouse has a baby, inevitably, gossips will ask if that child is his or hers. Additionally, no form of birth control is 100% fullproof, and it may be that voters who are ok with a politician having an open relationship are not ok with a child born out of wedlock, etc.

So the risks are high, and there are a lot of issues regarding whether voters would tolerate such a politician.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:01 AM on June 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The Roosevelts, according to this review from NPR about "Franklin and Eleanor"
It's unimaginable now to think of a first lady or a president acting with that much autonomy, but what that anecdote also reveals is the enlightened disregard Franklin and Eleanor had for conventional categories. As Rowley vividly describes, throughout the latter two decades of their 40-year unorthodox marriage, the Roosevelts shared their private life at close quarters with an "alternative family" of aides, advisers and close friends — most of whom were from working-class backgrounds.

Both Franklin and Eleanor also "gave each other space" to cultivate romantic friendships outside of the marriage. Whether or not these relationships were physical is still up for debate, but the language of existing letters shows there's no question they were passionate. In Eleanor's case, those romantic friendships were with men, like her beloved bodyguard Earl Miller, as well as with women, like the journalist Lorena Hickok. It was no secret to her colleagues in the press corps that "Hick," as she was called, was a lesbian; nor was it a secret that she and Eleanor seemed to be deeply in love. A few months after FDR's first inauguration, Eleanor wrote to "Hick" about their open secret: "And so you think they gossip about us ... I am always so much more optimistic than you are. I suppose because I care so little about what 'they' say." By the way, Rowley can quote those fearless words because Lorena Hickok preserved almost all of the 3,500 letters she and Eleanor wrote to each other from 1932 until Eleanor's death.
posted by Ufez Jones at 9:34 AM on June 7, 2011 [16 favorites]

Berlusconi is divorced, ostensibly because his wife couldn't take the humiliation anymore. So.

I think politicians could, ostensibly, be in open relationships. If they didn't lie about it to the media. Now, I don't know if Rep. Weiner was in such a relationship with his wife and the women he, supposedly consensually, sent sexy pictures to. But I do know that he made an ass out of himself by lying about it.

I think that whatever adults do together, with the consent of all parties involved, is none of our business, politicians or no. Lying to the public, thereby not only proving oneself to be an idiot, but giving ammunition to the scumbags on the opposing side? Much bigger deal than sex, kinky or otherwise.

Of course, none of this applies is Weiner harassed those women. Then he's a scumbag of the highest order who should be brought to justice accordingly.
posted by lydhre at 9:37 AM on June 7, 2011

I think there are some fine lines here. Bill Clinton sat for 60 Minutes in 1992 and admitted "causing harm in [his] marriage" (where we all knew what he meant) and was still elected President. Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected Governor despite a reputation as a "gropinator" (and obviously more than we knew, but which many suspected). A fair number of politicians practice serial monogamy in public, that we know of. And politicians can often weather a consensual-sex scandal by just keeping their head down for a while.

The public essentially demands a certain amount of public ritual obeisance to cultural norms of marriage, but the popularity of a politician and the amount of obeisance they must demonstrate vary inversely.

Certainly, there are also considerations of the politician's politics. A "family values" conservative is not going to manage an affair's discovery quite as well, simply because it makes them a hypocrite. Weiner, being a New York liberal, doesn't have that constituency to deal with or lose, to as much of an extent, as some guy in Utah. Closeted gays, notoriously, seem to have a hard time in the Republican Party, but Barney Frank chugs along election to election despite some sketchy young boyfriends. (Granted, I'm slipping away from topic, but I think the point is relevant.)

Ultimately, though, whether a relationship is open or not is generally a secret between spouses. Evidence shows that there have been many affairs and mistresses and kept women or whatnot -- even a ward (so-called). A lot of them have gotten away with peccadilloes, as it were. I think if a couple were indeed poly and open about it before developing political ambitions, they might have some difficulties, but a couple that practiced the discretion of the ages could go to their graves without being found out. (Biographers and historians sometimes find these things later on.)
posted by dhartung at 9:38 AM on June 7, 2011

As a constituent, I generally don't have a problem with whatever is going on privately between a married or unmarried couple as long as it's on the up-n-up. However, a wife tolerating poor behavior from her husband is far different in my eyes than an open and equal relationship. I (and others) find the former pretty distasteful and it makes me question the person's commitment to issues that are important to me. I think, if he has so little respect for his wife then he probably has not much for women in general and thus, also me.

Most of all, though, I don't want to know. And the internet is the enemy of discretion. If you don't want to air your personal, sexual life in front of the media then, well, I don't know what the hell you do but you don't tweet things to people you barely know, for starters.

Also, perfectly acceptable in my book: telling the media that this is a private matter and you won't discuss it. Not acceptable, going on endless talks shows to lie, lie, lie... badly.

So, ultimately, I don't think Weiner is the best example in regards to open relationships. However, I think a politician can have this sort of situation if he or she is truly equitable to his partner and respectful in general. If he or she makes it a point to keep it private and if he or she insists that it is no one else's business. That seems hard for regular people to do and is apparently herculean if you're an elected official.
posted by amanda at 9:59 AM on June 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

he was dissuaded from doing so at the end of his term

My understanding is that this had nothing to do with his open marriage, and everything to do with public opinion and the job he was doing as governor. If memory serves, when he "came out" about his affairs or whatever, it was pretty much a yawn-fest.

After Giuliani, Spitzer, etc. I'm pretty sure nobody in (downstate) New York gives a shit at all. People were a little taken aback when Cuomo vowed not to cohabitate with Sandra Lee in the governor's mansion. You could probably run for just about any NYC political position and be a gay openly poly porn star with a shoe fetish, and nobody would much care.

This is why I'm fairly certain that, as long as he doesn't resign and maybe tries to make nice with the local democratic party apparatus, Weiner is perfectly safe forever, in any political aspiration that keeps him in New York state (and probably for the presidency, too, considering he couldn't possibly run for another decade at least).
posted by Sara C. at 11:48 AM on June 7, 2011

>>are any of these (mostly) men actually in open relationships with their spouses/partners?

More people cheat than are secretly in open relationships. And why haven't we heard about any of the presumed cheated-upon spouses having similar relationships with third persons?

>>Can a politician be open about an open/poly/etc. relationship and be elected?

In the US? Doubt it.
posted by J. Wilson at 5:24 AM on June 8, 2011

Best answer: And why haven't we heard about any of the presumed cheated-upon spouses having similar relationships with third persons?

Plenty of reasons:
1 -- The vast majority of political spouses are in the public eye solely because of their spouses and are not followed around (physically, electronically or figuratively) to nearly the same degree.
2 -- It takes a different personality type to be a political spouse -- one that doesn't necessarily lead to the Type A "take what I want / I can do no wrong / no one would dare turn me in" sort who end up in the Weiner situation.
3 -- Most political spouses are women. Statistically, women are less likely to cheat with younger men who tell their friends, "Oh my god, you would not believe who I'm having an affair with!" They'll probably find a man about their own age, probably one who's a close friend already.
4 -- Even though it seems like we hear about these things all the time, it's a pretty small proportion of all the elected officials who get caught cheating. In the last decade and a half, I can think of maybe a dozen. That's barely 2 percent, counting 535 members of Congress, 50 governors, a couple dozen Cabinet members... Throw in turnover, and it's probably less than 1 percent. That's a small enough sample size that it's hard to draw any particular conclusion. Three times that many have died in office in the same time period.
posted by Etrigan at 9:59 AM on June 8, 2011

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