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Private Lives, Public Spaces:Lust in Translation May 6, 2009


My career has many perks and among them is the access I have to countless historical documents that are just waiting for historical interpretation. I have been “this close” to a copy of the US Constitution. I have held and read Thomas Jefferson’s diary. Tangible contact with history is why I love what I do.

Documents are the residue of history. They serve as evidence or proof that something happened.  The saying “shit happens” may at first seem like a cool and cynical appraisal of an unfortunate situation but it is the truth. Shit happens. Things are destroyed, people die or they lie, spouses cheat. Shit happens and you have to know how to handle it when it does. This truth is fundamental to political and social life.

Of all the famous women whose letters I have read, I don’t think anyone handled the shit that happens in life better than Eleanor Roosevelt.  She was by nature a shy and quiet woman when she met the young, handsome and dashing Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He could have had his pick of eligible bachelorettes but he chose Eleanor. Perhaps it was for her intelligence, her strength, or even her familial connections. It is difficult to know due to a lack of evidence (Eleanor destroyed Franklin’s love letters to her).  The only thing that is certain is that Eleanor was considered beneath young Franklin’s stature in the attractiveness department. Their marriage was troubled from the beginning and characterized by dominance and submission on all levels. They were sexually incompatible and to complicate matters, her overly protective and manipulative mother in law had taken residence in her home. FDR possessed a stronger sexual drive than his wife. This was something she tolerated until she gave birth to her sixth child in 1916. For the remaining 29 years of marriage, they would never have sexual relations again and kept separate bedrooms which extended to separate wings in the White House.

Lucy Mercer and Correspondence with FDR

Lucy Mercer and Correspondence with FDR

FDR had affairs outside of his marriage we know this because we have the evidence. Eleanor discovered love letters between Franklin and her social secretary Lucy Mercer. She was obviously upset and asked him to stop the affair. He did –sort of. In the meantime Franklin contracted polio. As the dutiful wife Eleanor came to her husband’s aid physically and spiritually. Their marriage strengthened into one of respect and devotion although not one of intimacy and passion.  Franklin’s  illness also allowed Eleanor to find her voice which carried him to the New York governor’s mansion and later the White House.  Polio did not take Franklin out of commission in the infidelity department. The speculation is that Eleanor had a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. In fact FDR’s mistress Lucy Mercer  who was now the widowed Lucy Mercer Rutherford  was by his side when he died 1945. Lucy left before Eleanor arrived.  But really does any of this matter? What does matter is that Eleanor has gone down in history has one of the most memorable first ladies in history. That is what we remember. That is what remains in our collective memory. She was a woman of strength – not a victim.

There is no doubt that the disruptive effect of an extramarital affair can take its toll on a marriage and obviously a political career as well. However frankly,  I have had it “up to here” with interviews and sob stories from women about how he cheated and I am standing by my man. Former New York Governor Spitzer, Bill Clinton, John Edwards blah, blah, blah. To explain this pattern it is useful to think in terms of victimization as well as supply and demand. Everyone likes a good scandal once and a while.


Middle English, from Late Latin scandalum stumbling block, offense, from Greek skandalon trap, stumbling block, offense; akin to Latin scandere to climb
13th century

1 a: discredit brought upon religion by unseemly conduct in a religious person b: conduct that causes or encourages a lapse of faith or of religious obedience in another

2: loss of or damage to reputation caused by actual or apparent violation of morality or propriety : disgrace.

3 a: a circumstance or action that offends propriety or established moral conceptions or disgraces those associated with it b: a person whose conduct offends propriety or morality

The process by which an action becomes a scandal is that it passes a  “lapse of faith” or “violation of morality or propriety” litmus test. My point is that these action of infidelity among politically prominent men are unfortunately becoming so common and public that one wonders if they still qualify as scandals. Yes, perhaps if you look at the mundane text book definition of a scandal, then yes they are a scandal. But certainly we the people formulate our own definitions. If the perception is that , sure these wives were obviously hurt by the marital transgression- the affair but look they are standing by their man and moving on…So why shouldn’t we?

Instead we see the continuous media hyped “the story of the affair” narratives or scripts which become problematic in my opinion because they send out a message of  female victimization .  These tell all interviews ultimately send many and mixed messages.  Validation of the affair. Vindication? Or rather justification.  At any rate, what remains in our collective consciousness is that the woman is a victim. The archetypal female victim.

I am not against Elizabeth Edwards. She is free to do what she wants.Personally I think John Edwards is a dirt bag. I have never liked him. He always had this disingenuous quality about him, something rather unctuous that I could not put my finger on. My instincts are seldom wrong and Edwards certainly proved them correct once again.

I am not against women like Monica Lewisnky who have affairs and tell all. That is her choice.

We all watch the news coverage, then the aftermath. The women and men accusing the “poor thing” depending on who it is, of being a “door mat” or a “slut/ home wrecker” process of the spurned woman going through the motions of should’ve, could’ve, would’ve. We collectively feel anger towards the guilty party – the man for about a hot New York minute. What do we feel for the victim? We feel sorry for her and unfortunately that is what she is remembered for.

The occasion of the tell all book and subsequent interviews only serve to provide fodder for train wreck loving onlookers.

Here is a 2007 video clip of Elizabeth Edwards confronting Ann Coulter. Even then it was all about John.

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