Prude and proud

42HillaryClinton Winning touch: Hillary Clinton and her husband, former president Bill Clinton, greeting supporters. With Trump facing a rebellion in his own party, Hillary is eyeing a landslide victory on November 8 | AFP

In the world’s largest democracy, Narendra Modi was finally forced to admit he was married, yet he chooses not to acknowledge his wife’s presence or live with her. His personal life has not had any impact on his electorate, as he is judged by his political deeds. 

When French president François Mitterrand died, his mistress and their daughter attended the funeral. The French seemed fine with his personal arrangements, even as they have been comfortable with Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande’s affairs of the heart. As long as they run the country well, other things don’t matter.

In the United States, however, even the whiff of another woman in the life of a person running for an office can ruin his chances badly. Edward Kennedy, a respected politician, made one career-fatal dalliance early in his career, in 1969, referred to as the ‘Chappaquiddick scandal’. He had picked a young lady, Mary Jo, for a post-party dalliance and was driving her to her room, when his car fell off a bridge. He escaped, she drowned. 

When the matter came to light, he did the honourable thing by pleading guilty to fleeing. The inquest kindly said she died of suffocation. Kennedy insisted there was nothing immoral happening between them (though the inquest gave telling details about her clothes). Shortly after, his pregnant wife suffered a third miscarriage. He refused to run for two presidential elections, but the shadow of the incident didn’t help him when he finally tried in 1980. John F. Kennedy’s romantic escapades had been kept secret, lest it should affect his career, and Bill Clinton somehow managed to hold onto his presidency despite ‘Monicagate’ and the numerous other peccadilloes—many while in the White House. He has had to maintain a low-profile public life since and is considered a huge liability for his wife’s presidential run. 

Why are Americans so touchy about the morals of their leaders? It has partly to do with the mother country, where the ruler is also head of the church and has to be above reproach, especially where love is concerned. Queen Elizabeth I ruled with an iron hand, projecting herself as the Virgin Queen and therefore superior morally. Generations later, King Edward VIII chose to abdicate the throne so that he could marry a divorcee, Wally Simpson. Even though modern royals live in a more relaxed environment, the virginity of the woman who marries the heir to the throne is of prime importance. Princess Diana’s eligibility over her sister to marry Charles was her virginal status. 

American prudery in public life is in sharp contrast to the more liberal attitudes the public has. However, scratch the surface, and there is a strong puritanical streak in the US, stemming from a history of religiosity that has existed since the time of its founding fathers. Indeed, church attendance in the US is higher than in west Europe.

 The lifestyles of New Yorkers or Los Angelenos are not representative of the outlook of the average American, though that is the image the media portrays and an enchanted world greedily laps up.

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