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Why are US presidents held to lower standards than regular folk?

Bill Clinton, who had an affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Photo/Getty Images

What is it that allows the US elite to tolerate in a president what it condemns in lesser beings, asks Paul Thomas.

Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia, which hosts the Masters every year, has been described as not so much a golf club as a bastion of power, wealth, privilege, influence and control, an emblem and self-appointed guardian of the American way of life.

Membership is by invitation rather than application and restricted to about 300. Members include Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, respectively the world’s richest and second-richest individuals, according to Forbes, and former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. In 2012, Rice and billionaire banker Darla Moore became Augusta’s first female members. The first African American was admitted in 1990, almost 60 years after the club’s formation.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

In 2010, following Tiger Woods’s exposure as a serial adulterer, club chairman Billy Payne had this to say about the four times Masters champion: “It’s not simply the degree of his conduct that’s so egregious here. It’s the fact that he disappointed all of us and, more importantly, our kids and grandkids. His future will never again be measured only by his performance against par but by the sincerity of his efforts to change.”

Stern stuff, but you could argue Woods deserved no less for his multiple low-rent rendezvous with cocktail waitresses and porn stars while wife Elin was at home caring for their children. But the condemnation Payne and many others heaped on Woods was in striking contrast to the eye rolls and shrugs that greeted the revelation that Donald Trump had an affair with a porn star shortly after his third wife and now First Lady Melania gave birth to their son, Barron.

Why the discrepancy? Is it really the case that Americans, particularly the US elite, hold a professional athlete to a higher standard of behaviour and accountability than the President? It would appear so.

Bill Clinton’s workplace affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky would have been a sackable offence for a school principal or military officer, to take two examples. An obvious similarity between Clinton and Trump is that both benefited from the law of diminishing returns when these escapades came to light: Clinton’s first presidential campaign in 1992 was almost derailed by the intervention of an ex-mistress, Gennifer Flowers; when the Lewinsky scandal erupted six years later, Americans were well aware their President was, in his wife’s rueful characterisation, “a hard dog to keep on the porch”.

Donald Trump. Photo/Getty Images

Trump this

Trump was boasting about his sexual exploits well before the emergence of the infamous “grab ’em by the pussy” tape. In 1997, he told shock jock Howard Stern that exposing himself to STDs via promiscuous behaviour had been his “personal Vietnam. I feel like a great and very brave soldier.” (Trump avoided serving in Vietnam, initially because of studies, but then after a diagnosis of heel-bone spurs, which didn’t prevent him playing tennis and football.) In Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, author Michael Wolff claims Trump “liked to say that one of the things that made life worth living was getting your friends’ wives into bed”.

A second connection is that the arguments used by Democrats in Congress and liberals outside to defend Clinton during the Lewinsky scandal – that the President’s guilt or otherwise should be determined by his wife rather than the media, public or political establishment; that Americans knew about the President’s proclivities and voted for him anyway – have been co-opted by the right and deployed in Trump’s defence.

In fact, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives impeached Clinton – he was acquitted by the Senate – but then when sex enters politics, hypocrisy ensues as night follows day.

Republican congressman Mark Sanford voted for impeachment. Subsequently, as Governor of South Carolina, he caused consternation by going off the grid for several days. His staff claimed he was hiking the Appalachian Trail, but he was actually visiting his mistress in Buenos Aires. In quick succession, his wife and four sons moved out of the governor’s mansion, impeachment proceedings got under way – the South Carolina legislature eventually settled for censure – and “hiking the Appalachian Trail” entered the American vernacular as a euphemism for a bit on the side. Now back in the US Congress, the Lazarus-like Sanford has shown a willingness to criticise Trump shared by few of his Republican colleagues.

Trump’s womanising may be the least of the ways in which he’s unpresidential. Since becoming President, he hasn’t – as far as we know and unlike Democratic Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Clinton – conducted adulterous trysts in the White House. This is a developing story, however: Wolff has hinted that Trump has had an affair since becoming President and invited readers to scour Fire and Fury for clues as to the other party’s identity. Those who have taken up the suggestion have zeroed in on US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley. By coincidence, Haley, who’s said to be “as ambitious as Lucifer”, succeeded Sanford as Governor of South Carolina.

Silvio Berlusconi. Photo/Getty Images

Donald, meet Silvio

Although some have joined the dots between Trump and disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, a more pertinent – and worrying – comparison may be with former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Both are old, thrice-married multibillionaires. Both are confidence men who, despite their vast wealth and privilege, successfully positioned themselves as populist outsiders who would shake up inert, inefficient, uncaring systems. Both have shrugged off accusations of conflicts of interest, racism, nepotism and using political office for personal gain. Both have been embroiled in sex scandals. Notorious for his “bunga bunga” parties, Berlusconi reportedly installed a chorus line of mistresses in gated communities outside Milan and was convicted of paying an underage prostitute for sex, though the conviction was later quashed. Both men’s financial dealings are questionable. (Berlusconi has been found guilty of tax fraud.)

Despite a catalogue of scandal that would have sunk any other Italian politician and compelling evidence of his unfitness for high office, Berlusconi, 81, hopes to make a comeback in elections in March. Polls show support for his centre-right coalition at about the 40% threshold needed for a parliamentary majority. He’s appealing against a ban preventing him from holding political office, and given his history of artful dodging, he has every chance of succeeding.

Americans who’ve chosen to ignore, rationalise or justify Trump’s behaviour would do well to ponder columnist Beppe Severgnini’s take on Berlusconi’s ability to parlay notoriety into political power: “Italians have affinity for Berlusconi because he is a walking absolution for our sins – and we have been living in the valley of complicity for a long time.”

This article was first published in the February 3, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.