News / USA

Sex Scandals Mar US Presidential Politics

Republican Presidential candidate Herman Cain gestures to the crowd during a campaign stop in Detroit, Michigan (file photo)
Republican Presidential candidate Herman Cain gestures to the crowd during a campaign stop in Detroit, Michigan (file photo)
Alex Villarreal

When U.S. businessman Herman Cain suspended his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination following allegations of sexual harassment and a lengthy extramarital affair, he joined a long list of U.S. presidents and presidential contenders whose personal lives have attracted scrutiny.

"I told you this bullseye on my back has gotten bigger," said Repubilcan presidential hopeful Herman Cain, the latest to come under the microscope. First, there were allegations of sexual harassment:

"He also grabbed my head," accuser Sharon Bialek told the press.

Then, there were claims of a 13-year affair. Public support for Cain has plummeted since.

"I think if you’re a cheater you’re a cheater, so to me he’s kind of out," a Washington area woman said.

"I personally don’t care if it’s a private matter or public, it reflects the character, it’s a decision, and is that the type of person we want to lead?" a Washington area man said.

From Presidents Thomas Jefferson to William Jefferson Clinton, sex scandals keep surfacing in American politics. They reveal the arrogance of politicians, says American University presidential historian Allan Lichtman.

"Sex scandals are particularly grating when they affect the so-called 'family values' candidates who seem to be preaching one thing and practicing another. That’s just a fundamental insult to the American people," he explained.

2008 Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards saw his political career destroyed, when Americans learned he had fathered a child in an affair with his campaign videographer.

In 1987, another Democratic presidential hopeful, Gary Hart, dropped out of the race when photos showed the married former senator on a yacht with a young model.

Former White House intern Monica Lewinsky (file photo)
Former White House intern Monica Lewinsky (file photo)

But sex scandals do not always end careers. Bill Clinton was in his second term as president when reports emerged of his affair with a White House intern.

“I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” then-President Bill Clinton told the nation.

Even after the House of Representatives impeached him for lying about the relationship, President Clinton maintained high approval ratings.  He remained in office after the Senate failed to convict him of the charges.

Pew Research Center Associate Director Michael Dimock says the public is willing to look past affairs if they see other good qualities in a politician.

"People really want to know about where candidates stand on the issues and what kind of leadership qualities they can show," Dimock said. "And while their honesty in their personal life is one reference point for people, it’s not necessarily a deal killer for everybody."

Former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn leaves his apartment, hours after being questioned by police, in Paris September 12, 2011.
Former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn leaves his apartment, hours after being questioned by police, in Paris September 12, 2011.

And the scandals are not limited to U.S. leaders.  In May, then-International Monetary Fund Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn lost his chance for the French presidency after a hotel maid in New York accused him of attempted rape.

In the U.S. race, it remains to be seen whether Cain's candidacy can survive, and whether one of his main Republican rivals, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who once stirred controversy with his own love affair, might see his past come back to haunt him.

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