The Betrayal of Marriage
As this article goes to print, it is as yet unclear whether Mayor Rudy Giuliani will withdraw from the New York Senate race. I believe he should—and not merely for health reasons. Given the events of the past weeks, it is the only honorable thing to do. I say this as a person who has admired Mr. Giuliani and considers his accomplishments as mayor of New York City to be among the most impressive governing achievements of modern times.
It is worth briefly recapitulating here what has occurred. Just over two weeks ago, Mr. Giuliani all but conceded that he was having an affair with Judith Nathan, a woman he has been squiring about town and whom he calls his “very good friend.” Then, on May 10, Mr. Giuliani announced at a press conference that he was seeking a separation from his wife, Donna Hanover—without first informing her of his decision. Mr. Giuliani went out of his way to praise his mistress as a “very, very fine woman,” and said about his marriage with Ms. Hanover: “Over the course of some period of time in many ways, we’ve grown to live independent and separate lives.”
The mayor’s assertion was contradicted three hours later by his emotionally distraught wife, who said, “I had hoped that we could keep this marriage together. For several years, it was difficult to participate in Rudy’s public life because of his relationship with one staff member.” Ms. Hanover was referring to Cristyne Lategano-Nicholas, the mayor’s former communications director. The mayor and Ms. Lategano-Nicholas denied those allegations in the past, and continue to deny them now.
Even if Ms. Hanover’s account is not fully accurate, we know that Mr. Giuliani, the married father of two children, ages 14 and 10, is engaged in a very public, intimate relationship with another woman. This is troubling in itself. And if Ms. Hanover’s account is to be believed, we have a situation in which the mayor had an adulterous relationship with a staff member, lied about it, agreed to his wife’s efforts at reconciliation, only to leave her for yet another woman. This would be more serious still.
Regardless of whose account you believe, Mr. Giuliani has publicly humiliated his wife, grievously hurt his children and behaved dishonorably. These acts, in my judgment, are why Mr. Giuliani should withdraw from the Senate race.
Public & Private Morality?
This incident once again raises the question of whether, and in what circumstances, a public official’s “private life”—and more specifically, his sexual conduct—is relevant to his public life. I have long argued that what matters are facts, circumstances and context, as well as principles. For example, past indiscretion, followed by an authentic change in ways and reconciliation with a wife, is vastly different from serial adultery while in office.
Was the affair marked by compulsiveness, carelessness and cruelty? Was there exploitation based on age and status? Did the affair involve a staff member? Did the person know his personal life would come under scrutiny and still decide to run the risk of an affair? These are factors to consider and weigh. We can’t have what many wish for: a manual on how to treat the almost endless array of scenarios. Reasoned moral judgments depend on the application of general principles to particular facts.
Adultery, in short, ought not automatically disqualify a person from seeking elected office. But in some circumstances infidelity ought to be the subject of public concern. Infidelity often can reveal something important about a person’s character and judgment, his trustworthiness and prudence.
For those who think the standard I am applying to Mr. Giuliani is harsh, puritanical and atavistic, it is worth pointing out that this is precisely the public standard that applied in those ancient days of yore—1987. In that year, Gary Hart withdrew from the Democratic primary because of his relationship with Donna Rice. “Through thoughtlessness and misjudgment I’ve let each of you down,” Mr. Hart told his staff. “And I deeply regret that.” By saying what he said, and by withdrawing from the race, Mr. Hart (to his credit) affirmed an important public standard. At that time, it was widely agreed he should pull out of the race. According to Bill Clinton’s biographer, David Maraniss, even he ultimately agreed that Mr. Hart was right to withdraw.
Some Clinton acolytes like James Carville have attempted to compare the Giuliani affair to the Clinton scandal and accused Republicans of hypocrisy for condemning Mr. Clinton while not speaking out against Mr. Giuliani. Surely this much is true: Members of both parties ought to be more consistent in their application of moral standards.
But it must be said that while what Mr. Giuliani did was loutish, the mayor has not been cited for contempt of court, as has Mr. Clinton. Nor has Mr. Giuliani lied under oath in a civil deposition, provided false and misleading testimony to a grand jury, obstructed justice, or sent his aides to spread lies about, and destroy, the reputations of women with whom he is alleged to have had affairs. Nor has he agreed to pay more than three-quarters of a million dollars to a woman in return for her dropping a sexual harassment lawsuit. Nor has Mr. Giuliani been credibly accused of rape. So there are crucial differences between the two. Mr. Giuliani is no gentleman—but neither is he Bill Clinton.
A Trendy Barbarism
One of the striking things that has occurred during the Giuliani scandal, as it did during the discussion about Mr. Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, is how acts of infidelity are said to make certain men appear more “human” and “vulnerable,” less “cold-blooded” and “perfect.” Mr. Giuliani is now a man to whom the rest of us can better “relate.” The act of adultery, in short, elicits from many people understanding and sympathy. Adultery, we are constantly reminded, is an “essentially victimless” activity between “consenting adults.” Some commentators are pleased that when it comes to our attitude toward adultery, Americans are becoming more like the French.
I dissent. George Orwell said that a restatement of the obvious is sometimes the first duty of a responsible man. It is therefore worth restating what was once obvious: In extramarital affairs there are victims, beginning with the spouse and children. If marriage vows and commitments are still to be taken seriously, then adultery is a betrayal of a very high order. And when it is discovered, acute emotional damage almost always follows—often leading to divorce. In marriage, one person has been entrusted with the soul of another. That power, freely given, is unlike any other human relationship—and so, too, is the damage that can be done. This shouldn’t be made light of, shrugged off, dismissed.
In a current, trendy barbarism, some commentators claim adultery has a “humanizing” effect and that it makes public figures more “interesting.” This, of course, corrupts the notion of what it means to be human. If betraying a wife makes you more “human,” then does one’s humanity grow too with the betrayal of one’s parents? Or one’s children? Or one’s country? Just how many betrayals make you “fully human”?
Can We Make Moral Judgments?
All of this takes place in a particular cultural context: the institution of marriage is in trouble. The distinguished historian Lawrence Stone has written: “The scale of marital breakdown in the West since 1960 has no historical precedent and seems unique. There has been nothing like it for the past 2,000 years, and probably much longer.” A recent Zogby poll found that by an overwhelming margin the breakdown of the family was considered to be the most important problem facing the nation. Yet most New Yorkers apparently aren’t concerned about the revelations of the past few weeks. Adultery is, they say, a “private” matter of no public consequence.
I recognize that to hold a different view these days opens one up to charges of being a “moralist” and a “scold.” Nevertheless, I persist in my belief that the public can’t on the one hand lament the crackup of the American family, and, on the other hand, remain utterly indifferent to, and fully accepting of, political leaders who publicly abrogate marriage vows and make adultery more acceptable. At some point, we must be prepared to do something about it. Even in the deeply nonjudgmental age in which we live, we must be willing, now and again, to make some moral judgments. Otherwise we truly have reached a point where, in the words of Livy, we can’t bear either our diseases or their cure.
—William J. Bennett
William J. Bennett served in the Reagan and Bush administrations and is currently writing a book about marriage and the family. This article originally appeared in the May 19, 2000 issue of the Wall Street Journal and is reprinted here with permission.
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“The Betrayal of Marriage” first appeared in the July/August 2000 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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