So the Department of Justice has decided to move forward with charges against John Edwards for possibly illegally using campaign funds to cover up his affair with Rielle Hunter. The price to hide his infidelity from the public eye while campaigning for the presidency with his cancer stricken wife: approximately $1 million. I have to give credit to my wife who couldn’t see the logic to the government’s case: not spending the funds to hush up the affair would have hurt his election chances. In other words, the money was spent on a legitimate campaign expense.
The news of the DOJ’s indictment of Edwards comes on the heels of another very prominent politician admitting to an extramarital affair. A week after announcing his separation from, Maria Shriver, his wife of 25 years, Arnold Schwarzenegger publicly admitted to his affair with a member of his household staff, who bore him a son ten years ago. (Let’s be honest, though, Schwarzenegger’s affair can hardly come as a shock to most, considering the numerous women who came forward during his 2003 gubernatorial campaign with charges of his having molested them, charges, btw, that he did not dispute.)
While this blog is not the space to begin exploring the intersection of male power and infidelity nor the long tradition of American’s scrutinizing of our politicians’ sexual lives I did come across an excellent opinion piece on Salon.com, “The upside of ‘puritanical’ politics.” In her article, Alyssa Battistoni argues that while the American tradition of “finger-pointing” and “redemption” regarding male politician’s sexual indiscretions has become essentially an empty ritual, or “pageantry,” the French mode of turning a blind eye simply effaces the underlying imbalanced access to power, that “men have the power, and women have sex with the power.” For Battistoni, neither the American nor the French model offers a means of critiquing in a nuanced way the relationship between sex, gender, and power: whereas the American model focuses on the individual failings of the man, eschewing the personal and the political, the French simply tacitly sanctions the mindset that presents women as “prizes” for successful men. As Battistoni sums up, “The fact is that for all their differences, neither the French nor the American approach really takes seriously the challenge of addressing the culture of deference to powerful men, or of talking about the difficult and often ambiguous questions around the public relevance of sexual politics.”
With this recent spate of powerful men having their philandering brought to light, I am reminded of the libertine court of Charles II.
John Malkovich as Charles II in The Libertine (2004)
Now here was a realm where drunken debauchery was the order of the day. Before I get into the epic sexcapades that were the hallmark of the Restoration court, let me give a bit of context. Kings and their affairs/ illegitimate children were nothing new to the English monarchy. (Royal marriages were political arrangements that in no way resembled the highly romanticized ideal of Kate and William.) Typically, these bastard offspring of the kings would be made into lesser nobles, see Henry VIII’s son Henry FitzRoy (“Son of the King”) who was made 1st Duke of Richmond and Somerset. Charles II, however, out did himself in this aspect of his reign.
Culture has a pendulum-like dynamic to it – a swing one way in social, political, moral attitudes is often corrected by an equal movement in the opposite direction. Such a correction happened in England at the beginning of 1660. Following an almost two-decade long Puritanical rule, that concluded with the brief reign of Cromwell’s inept son, Richard (a.k.a “Tumble Down Dick”), the Stuart monarchy was brought back, or restored. After yet another army coup of Parliament in 1659, led by Generals Lambert and Monk, Charles II was invited back to London on May 1st, 1660 to be crowned. Throughout his reign, Charles would be linked to numerous mistresses, such as Louise de Kéroualle (Duchess of Portsmouth) and Barbara Palmer (Countess of Castlemaine). Charles’ taste for mistresses was not confined to the aristocracy; he often found lovers on the stage. (It was during the Restoration that England adopted the Continental practice of allowing women actresses.) The most famous of Charles’ “common” mistresses was Nell Gywn, an actress who would bear Charles two sons. (Interestingly, with all of the illegitimate children Charles would have, nine in all, he would die without an heir, paving the way for his Catholic brother, James II.)
Louise de Keroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth. 1682 by Pierre Mignard
Nell Gwyn depicted as Cupid, circa 1672
Now there was reasonable public concern about how much influence these mistresses had over Charles. For example, Kéroualle, being French, was thought to be attempting to convert Charles to Catholicism. Worry over the French Catholic influence via Kéroualle was so palpable that she would often have her carriage pelted with mud and rocks by Londoners. One time, Nell’s carriage was mistaken for Kéroualle’s and was likewise attacked. The story goes that Nell leaned out the window and shouted, “Nay good people, I am the Protestant whore.” All of this philandering took its toll on the royal coffers. When Charles lamented his financial straits to his “good Nelly,” she told flatly how to remedy the situation: “Send the French [Kéroualle] to France again, set me on the stage again, and lock up your own cod-piece.” (Moll Davis, another one of Charles’ mistresses from the stage, supposedly received an annual pension of a £1,ooo. Although, as Nell Gywn’s biographer, Charles Beauclerk remarks, with the death of Charles on Feb. 14th, 1685, his mistresses were for all intents and purposes thrown out into the cold.)
If it seems that I am reducing Charles II’s time on the throne to merely his affairs, I do not mean to. Charles was a great patron of the emerging scientific community – it was under his reign that the Royal Society was granted its initial charter. However, even those in his closest circles felt Charles was easily swayed by his sexual desires. John Wilmot, the 2nd earl of Rochester, satirized Charles’ susceptibility to his mistresses in a lampoon that he accidently gave to the King. (A heads-up: the language may be offensive to those who have never read Rochester’s poetry before. Hell, it may even be offensive still to those who have.)
Rochester was certainly not a prude himself. On his death, he claimed to having been drunk for three years straight. Moreover, Rochester's wife and mistress both shared the same first name, Elizabeth, and each gave birth to daughters, named Elizabeth.
Rochester portrays Charles as entirely given over to the whims of his penis, placing the fate of England in the hands (pun intended) of his mistresses: “Nor are his high desires above his strength:/ His scepter and his prick are of a length;/ And she may sway the one who plays with th’other” (lns. 10-12). Rochester expresses an anti-monarchial sentiment in voicing his fear that Charles appears to care less for the welfare of his people than for satisfying his lust: “Though safety, law, religion, life lay on’t,/ ‘Twould break through all to make its way to cunt” (lns. 18-19) Rochester finishes by describing the efforts that “Nelly” has to go through to “raise the member she enjoys.” (Earlier in the poem, Rochester hints at Charles’ impotence.)
With all of the sex scandals of men in power – Schwarzenegger, Edwards, and, to be Continental, Berlusconi, Rochester’s lampoon of Charles II may have some more currency for our conversation about sex, power, and gender.