Behind the Books:
What if Bill Clinton Were a Woman?
For a guy who was a political science major in college, I'm really not much of a political activist. (Thinking back on it, I wasn't much of a political science major, either). But one issue did intrigue me enough to spark a political thriller: what will the presidential election be like in this country when neither candidate is a white male? That was the simple premise behind The Abduction. Allison Leahy is the first woman to run for president, and her opponent, Lincoln Howe, is the first African American.
One of the first scenes I conjured up was the presidential debate that appears in Chapter 2. I was searching for an issue that would spark controversy in my fictional campaign. At the time I was writing this particular scene, the buzzword for real-life political scandal in this country was, of course, adultery. You're probably thinking Monica Lewinsky, but I wrote The Abduction long before her. It was actually President Clinton's alleged affair with Gennifer Flowers that got me thinking. How would my fictional candidates handle a question about adultery? Should the question even be asked? If asked, should it be answered? How would the voters react?
To answer these questions, I simply asked myself, What if Bill Clinton were a woman?
The Abduction isn't about a political sex scandal, but that is where it all started. I thought a lot about the questions that pop up in presidential campaigns, the rights of candidates and their families to have some sense of privacy, and the public's right to know. Most of those thoughts never made it into the book. That was my decision. I hate preachy books. In fact, one of the things that makes me most proud about my first novel, The Pardon, is that readers could love it or hate it and still have to ask me where I stand on the death penalty. I strove for a similar objective in writing The Abduction, in that hopefully readers can't tell if I'm Republican or Democrat. So, if you're content to be entertained, just read the book. If you want a little more, read on to find an editorial piece I wrote on the adultery issue when The Abduction was released in April 1998. I decided not to publish it at the time, and I'm not even sure I still agree with everything I wrote back then. But it's interesting to look back on it now. Here you go...
Copyright © 1998 James Grippando
Bill Clinton has made some women politicians very nervous. They are Republicans and they are Democrats. They are the presidential and vice-presidential hopefuls in the 2000 election. Some are already involved in 1998 campaigns, holding their breath in anticipation of the adultery question. They have seen public opinion polls suggesting that a man could have sex with a woman who is not his wife and still be elected to the highest office. But they are still nervous --- because they wonder if the same rules will apply to women.
Their worries are grounded in political and social reality. Is there a double standard in this country that makes it acceptable for men but unforgivable for women to cheat on a spouse? If so, will the double standard kick in at the voting booths? These questions --- not the fate of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's wounded grand jury investigation --- are the real future of the White House sex scandal.
Elizabeth Dole, Geraldine Ferraro, Christine Todd Whitman, Kay Baily Hutchinson, Hillary Rodham Clinton --- the women on anyone's list of top women contenders for president --- are all married. Whoever she may be, there is a statistically fair chance she will have broken her marital vows of fidelity at some point in her life. About a third of the wives in this country cheat at least once during their lifetime, as compared with about half the husbands. Factor in the opportunities and temptations a successful woman politician faces, and the gender gap might be even narrower.
Unfortunately, the statistics tell only the number of people who commit adultery. They do not tell who is forgiven for it. The issue of forgiveness is where the real double standard lies.
Since the president is the Commander in Chief, it is an interesting coincidence that compelling evidence of this enduring double standard comes from the armed forces. Last year, a woman made headlines after she was promptly discharged from the air force in an adultery scandal. This winter, a military jury almost inexplicably rejected the testimony of six women who swore under oath that the army's highest ranking enlisted soldier --- a married man --- had pressured them for sex.
If you still doubt whether that double standard exists, consider the term "home wrecker." When you hear it, do you think of a man? Admit it. You think of a woman. And the reason you do is because so much of what we've heard all our lives about adultery teaches us to excuse the man who commits it. When the married woman strays, society doesn't brand her lover as "the home wrecker." Society blames the unfaithful wife. Let's face it, the name of the song isn't Stand by Your Woman.
That an unfaithful woman bears the full brunt and stigma of an extra-marital affair raises troubling issue for women candidates. Now that Paula Jones' civil suit has been dismissed, the legacy of the current White House sex scandal will likely be more political than legal. It may well establish a threshold morality test each presidential candidate must pass: adultery.
Rest assured, the question will be asked. Some voters were fooled into thinking that presidential politics took a giant step forward in the 1996 election, praising Mr. Dole's refusal to attack President Clinton for Gennifer Flowers and his other alleged affairs. Only after the election did most voters learn that Mr. Dole didn't want to talk directly about his opponent's indiscretions because he, himself, feared the mainstream media was poised to print a woman's claim that she had had an extra-marital affair with the senator during his first marriage. It was a virtual muzzle on the man who had told Meet the Press in January 1994 that marital fidelity is "fair game" in an election.
When the adultery question is asked, the "forgiveness" double standard virtually guarantees it will not affect male and female candidates equally. No one will pretend that an unfaithful husband has never been elected president. But as a matter of political reality, voters may not be so forgiving of an unfaithful wife who seeks that office.
This disparity is just one more reason for restraint in the examination of a candidate's sex life. If a candidate directly challenges the media and puts his or her marital fidelity at issue, that candidate should be prepared to answer some probing questions. Or if a credible third party comes forth with evidence that a candidate has engaged in immoral conduct, the public should expect a response. But when the adultery question is simply part of a character fishing expedition, it is up to the candidates --- male and female --- to draw the line. They should decline to answer. It would be a shame to see the best woman for the job lose the election over a character issue that might not be an issue --- if she were a man.
THE ABDUCTION: HarperCollins Publishers: May 2001 Behind the Writing of the Novel: Copyright 2000 James Grippando