The New Adultery Rules

The New Adultery Rules

The New Adultery Rules

How you look at things.
May 11 2000 3:00 AM

The New Adultery Rules

The ethics of adultery used to be straightforward. "Thou shalt not commit adultery," said the Ten Commandments. Recently, however, public opinion has grown rather more complicated. While Gary Hart and Newt Gingrich were ruined by cheating, Bill Clinton and Rudy Giuliani have gotten away with it. By a margin of 77 percent to 12 percent, New Yorkers say Giuliani's newly disclosed "friendship" with Judith Nathan, a divorced socialite, "is a private matter and has no effect on how I view Giuliani as a Senate candidate." So is adultery now OK? Not quite. Thanks to the eternal human craving for scandal and gossip, the old strictures against adultery haven't disappeared. They have merely evolved into a subtler, more confused list of commandments.

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1. Thou shalt not flaunt it. The old rule said you couldn't do it. The new rule says you can do it, but we don't want to know about it. Giuliani says his sex life is "private." His Senate opponent, Hillary Clinton, agrees. So does his old enemy, ex-Mayor Ed Koch.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

1a. Thou shalt not hide it. Watergate taught Americans that the cover-up is worse than the crime. That's why Bill Clinton got in so much trouble over Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky. "The mayor will not lie about it, to his credit," applauds the New York Times' Joyce Purnick.

2. Thou shalt give thy lover privacy. Chivalry requires that while enduring the scrutiny all politicians face, the adulterer must "protect" his paramour. "You can pursue public officials all you want," Giuliani tells reporters. But as for Nathan, he argues, "People who are private citizens should really be left alone."

2a. Thou shalt give thy lover public affection. The paramour may deserve privacy, but the politician reaps praise for "holding hands" and being "affectionate" with her. "Everything about this—illness, love—humanizes the mayor," an analyst tells the Washington Post.

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3. Thou shalt be ashamed. The old rule said everybody is tempted, but you shouldn't do it. The new rule says everybody does it, but you should repent afterward. Hence the post-Monica obsession with Bill Clinton's "contrition" and the laments from some quarters at Giuliani's frankness.

3a. Thou shalt not be ashamed. The old school said moral reality should determine perception. The new school says moral perception determines reality. You dignify your adultery by confirming it with dignity. "It is the way one behaves when confronted with his or her actions" that matters, says the New York Post's Andrea Peyser. "The mayor stood before the hungry press corps alone" and "made no attempt to conceal" his affair. "He's got guts."

4. Thou shalt not get accustomed to it. The old rule said a lapse was bad. The new rule says a pattern is bad, but a lapse is OK. Gennifer Flowers was OK. But Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey, and Monica Lewinsky were not OK. Giuliani doesn't have to abstain from adultery. He just has to abstain more often than Bill Clinton does.

4a. Thou shalt accustom the voters to it. This school of thought says the more often you commit adultery, the less surprised your constituents will be each time. By the time Clinton got to Lewinsky, the voters were too jaded to throw him out. Likewise, Giuliani's advisers say voters are shrugging off his affair because over the years he "has made no secret of his estrangement from his wife."

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5. Thou shalt not do it behind thy spouse's back. The old idea was that God decides whether adultery is OK. The new idea is that your spouse decides. "It probably helps Giuliani that this story lacks a true victim" since his wife knows about it and leads an openly "independent existence," writes the Washington Post's Richard Cohen.

5a. Thou shalt not do it in thy spouse's face. This is the show-and-tell rule. You're supposed to tell your spouse you'll fool around, but you're not supposed to show her or make her confront a knowing public. Everyone sort of knows Giuliani's marriage is a sham, a worried Giuliani adviser concedes to the New York Daily News, but the mayor's latest statements to the press cross the line of "in-your-face confirmation."

6. Thou shalt blame thy frigid spouse. When a marriage goes bad, somebody's going to get blamed. Make sure it's not you. A large camp has formed in New York blaming Giuliani's "icy" and "chilly" wife for driving him into another woman's arms. "What came first—the girlfriend or the marital estrangement?" asks Peyser.

6a. Thou shalt take responsibility. Giuliani's skeptics answer that the girlfriends came first, leading to the estrangement. His marriage "hit the rocks five years ago when he confronted reports that he was having an affair with his then press secretary … a claim denied by all sides," says the Times of London. An adulterer can't win the blame game, goes this theory. He's better off taking his lumps than looking like a lying coward. 

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7. Thou shalt endure thy spouse's adultery. The New Testament mentality says it's virtuous to suffer humiliation. This yardstick puts Hillary Clinton ahead of Giuliani. She reaps "the sympathy vote," according to the London Times, because the Lewinsky affair "transformed her from one of the villains in the many scandals to hit the Clinton White House to the role of wronged wife."

7a. Thou shalt not endure thy spouse's adultery. The Old Testament mentality says it's disgraceful to suffer humiliation. "The biggest issue amongst women with Hillary is, 'Why do you stay with him?' " observes a Democratic consultant. Voters figure that Giuliani's wife, like Hillary Clinton, must be trading silence for career advancement.

8. Thou shalt not divorce thy spouse. The old rule said you should remain faithful in practice. The new rule says you should remain faithful in theory. Marriage, like religion, is an inspirational illusion you owe your kids. And if you're a politician, it's an illusion you owe your country. This argument puts Bill Clinton ahead of Newt Gingrich and puts Giuliani ahead of both of them, since unlike Clinton, he's still living with his wife.

8a. Thou shalt marry thy lover. The old rule said you're supposed to stay married. The new rule says you're just supposed to be married. If you don't like your current spouse, find another. This argument puts Gingrich ahead of Bill Clinton, since Gingrich has become engaged to his girlfriend, while Clinton dumped his. And Giuliani gets credit for sharing Thanksgiving dinner and other family events with Nathan, her parents, and her daughter.

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9. Thou shalt hold her in sickness, not in health. Giuliani confirmed his affair just after announcing he had prostate cancer. This arouses sympathy for two reasons. First, people figure that an unhappily married man facing mortality is entitled to a bit of happiness. Second, his girlfriend gets to look maternal by mothering him. Already, Nathan has accompanied Giuliani to the hospital for cancer tests. "I am quite concerned for his health, and I hope you will respect that," she tells reporters. "That's really my concern."

9a. Thou shalt hold her in health, not in sickness. This school of thought says you have to change wives before playing the illness sympathy card. "Getting caught with the girlfriend when you and your family are supposedly locked in fear about a life-threatening disease? Could God even spin that?" a Giuliani friend tells the Daily News.

10. Thou shalt not push thy morality on others. "In liberal circles … it's far worse to be a hypocrite than it is to be a sinner," writes the New York Post's John Podhoretz. Giuliani's adultery is OK because "throughout the Lewinsky ordeal, the mayor expressed the view that the president's private life was nobody's business." Purnick, on the other hand, says Giuliani flunks this test, since he "tried to punish a museum that exhibited art he considered immoral" and "wants the Ten Commandments posted in public schools."

10a. Thou shalt not push thy immorality on others. Conservative circles take a different view: Just as hypocrisy can be useful, candid indecency can be pernicious. According to a New York political consultant, these voters found it "unseemly" that Giuliani's wife had planned to perform in The Vagina Monologues, a sexually explicit play. But the play was fiction, and the wife has since backed out. Giuliani's dalliance is real. And at the moment, he's going full steam ahead.