“Ducking for cover,” roared the headline on page 3 of the May 1st Boston Herald. It would have been an appropriate headline for a story on the state of daily life in Baghdad, where a slew of recent bombings claimed the lives of more than 1,600 Iraqi civilians. Instead, the headline refers to the dozens of disgraced D.C. lawmakers, administrators, power-brokers, and perhaps even ordinary bureaucrats who might be forced to resign now that previously convicted madam Jeanne Palfrey, apparently as part of her defense to federal prostitution charges, has turned her client list over to ABC News.
Millions of viewers are expected to tune into ABC on Friday to watch Palfrey name her clients in a much-hyped “Dateline” interview. One is reminded of those ancient orgies of public shaming when crowds would gather at the public square to watch a caning, whipping, or hanging for some offense against public decency and morals. Ignore for a moment the inherent national embarrassment in the fact that what is essentially a non-story (is anyone surprised that some Capital Hill denizens engage in occasional extramarital peccadilloes?) has eclipsed the growing international instability and the death toll in Iraq as the top news story in the country. Even more troublesome is the fact that the “DC Madam” scandal may lead to the forced resignations of some of the country’s more capable business and political leaders.
The affair has already prompted its first resignation: Ambassador Randall L. Tobias, who reported to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as Director of U.S. Foreign Assistance, who insists that he only used the agency for an occasional massage – no sex involved. Tobias is married, making his situation particularly damning in the holier-than-thou Bush administration.
By most accounts, Tobias was more than just a cut above the usual Bush Administration hack. He earned considerable respect as a corporate leader, helping turn around AT&T International in the 1990s before becoming a top executive at Eli Lilly and Co. during a time of unprecedented innovation and growth. He has won numerous humanitarian awards and honorary degrees for his second career as a central figure in AIDS awareness circles. His nonprofit, The Randall L. Tobias Foundation at Indiana University, has distributed over $10 million in grants and charitable gifts to education-related organizations and institutions since 1994. Given the dearth of real talent in the Bush Administration, one should not be filled with glee at the fall of one of the better ones.
I am reminded of an earlier reprise of the age-old conflict between America’s Puritan heritage and the biological realities of real life. When I was a college student in the 1960s during the Cold War, some sex scandal would periodically break out somewhere in the Foreign Service. One year it was a series of American ambassadors and other diplomats serving abroad in Iron Curtain nations who were discovered to be involved in sexual liaisons with Eastern Bloc women suspected of working for one or another Communist intelligence service; they were all recalled and fired. The following year an American embassy official was found in a liaison with a local male suspected of being an agent; this official, too, was dismissed from the Foreign Service.
At this point, James Wechsler, the legendary editorial-page editor of The New York Post, at the time a journalistic bastion of traditional liberalism owned by the family of Dorothy Schiff (1903-1989), wrote a commentary that claimed that the State Department’s foreign service was in a crisis. The year before, the department fired a slew of heterosexual ambassadors. The following year, he noted, they began going after the homosexuals. Pretty soon, Wechsler concluded, the State Department will run out of enough eunuchs to fill all of our ambassadorial posts.
Sex endures, while history does indeed repeat itself.