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TIME On Politics
TIME magazine

Politics Made Me Do It

By Robert Wright

(TIME, February 2) -- There was a time, long before the age of John Kennedy and Bill Clinton, when world leaders didn't risk their careers surreptitiously pursuing sex. They pursued it openly and risklessly. The Roman biographer Suetonius had this to say about the Emperor Augustus: "His friends used to behave like Toranius, the slave dealer, in arranging his pleasures for him--they would strip grown girls of their clothes and inspect them as though they were for sale."

In ancient China, imperial gratification was a tidier affair. An Emperor in the Chou dynasty had 37 wives and 81 concubines. Harem administrators kept track of menstrual cycles, scheduling sex at each woman's peak fertility.

The anthropologist Laura Betzig, surveying these early civilizations, has rendered the Darwinian opinion that politics has often been "little more than reproductive competition"--men using power to better spread their genes. The Aztec King Nezahualpilli had more than 100 children, as did Ramses II of Egypt.

It is thus ironic that a leading brand of condom bears the Egyptian King's name, but there is an even larger condom-related puzzle. If Betzig is correct, then why, in this age of contraceptives, do politicians keep philandering? Where's the "reproductive competition" in a fruitless tryst?

The answer from evolutionary psychology is that men are still saddled with urges that evolved in our precontraceptive hunter-gatherer past. More sex with more females meant more offspring, so genes giving males a thirst for sex with a variety of partners (especially young, hence quite fertile, partners) flourished. So did genes inspiring men to pursue the social status that tends to attract partners. In a sense, then, the very purpose of the power that Presidents Clinton and Kennedy spent their life amassing was to expand their sex life. Can we really blame a guy for doing what's natural? There are two basic answers.

One is to say, while "natural" doesn't mean "good," it may mean "hard to resist." A male potentate's lust is not just stronger than most women can appreciate but also stronger than most men can appreciate. Few of us regularly encounter fawning, nubile women, laughing at our every joke, sighing at our every insight, curious about our every distinguishing characteristic. The temptation fostered by such adoration is "designed"--by natural selection--to be powerful.

And succumbing to it can be addictive. Such pleasurable neurotransmitters as dopamine, now implicated in drug dependency, weren't created by Mother Nature to boost cocaine sales, after all. Their natural function is to reinforce habits that helped our ancestors survive and reproduce, such as eating and fornicating. Though few men share an alpha male's opportunities for sexual addiction, any smoker who has kicked the habit rather than die young, only to then fall off the wagon, knows the mighty logic that can make a presidency self-destruct.

Given the power of such biological forces, should we forgive the indiscretions of politicians? Maybe. But there is a quite different answer, also rooted in the human past.

The funny thing about most ancient civilizations is that they weren't very civilized. They carried the law of the jungle to new heights, using the machinery of the state to gratify the strong on an epic scale and keep the weak at bay. Inca nobility had "houses of virgins," each stocked with hundreds of women, but if a man of lesser lineage sought a piece of the action--seduced one of these women or a king's cloistered female kin--the man, his family and everyone in his village would be killed.

Indeed, Betzig has observed, in general, rulers with the most sexual perks have been the most brutal. Thus sexual license, though stereotypically linked with permissive liberals, has often been an enemy of the left, a tool of class oppression. The oppression needn't be violent. While the Aztec King Montezuma II is said to have possessed 4,000 women, and all noblemen got as many as they could afford, "an ordinary Indian," a Franciscan friar noted, "could scarcely find a woman when he wished to marry."

A cherished feature of modern times is the idea that the rich and powerful aren't special. Upper-class men aren't supposed to hoard women, treating them as chattel and sexually disfranchising poorer men. More generally, the rich face the same legal and moral strictures as everyone else. We've tried, at least, to take the alpha out of the alpha male (and alpha female).

Obviously, we haven't succeeded. The rich and poor aren't truly equal before the law, for example. Still, we've come a long way. And if there is anyone whose job it is to symbolize our aspiration for further progress, to refrain from the naturally self-indulgent use of power, it's the President of the U.S. Especially, perhaps, a President who is liberal and thus holds that the privileged shouldn't exercise their various appetites untrammeled.

This may be too idealistic. But occasionally we do see a politician who offers hope that the millenniums-old drift toward civilized behavior can continue. Who knows? Maybe posterity will see John Kennedy and Bill Clinton, the smooth-talking jet-setters, as relics of the ancient past and Jimmy Carter, the Bible-quoting peanut farmer who lusted only in his heart, as a man of the future.

In TIME This Week

Cover Date: February 2, 1998

Sparking The Scandal
Lucianne Goldberg: In Pursuit Of Clinton
Hot Off The Wiretap
Is The Prosecutor Running A Starr Chamber?
The Burden Of Proof
It's the Sex, Stupid
Truth or...Consequences
Oh, Behave!
In Defense of Matt Drudge
When Sex Is Not Really Having Sex
Enablers And Enforcers: The Two White House Cultures
The Reckless and the Stupid
The Notebook
The Master Fixer in a Fix
Ken Starr, Gumshoe
The Days Of Her Life
Politics Made Me Do It