Drunkenness, affairs, secret gay relationships, dodgy financial dealings, and other sins have been common in public life since the Jewish and Roman historians started documenting them. But for most of American history, most Americans didn’t want to know, a desire affirmed by last year’s cringe-inducing memoir by a teenage girlfriend of John F. Kennedy. The demand that politicians actually live up to their virtuous facades, enforced by press and prosecutors for the last few decades, reached its peak in the exposure of Bill Clinton’s affair with an intern, Monica Lewinsky. And the sanctimonious approach by some press and prosecutors has been — as the national revulsion at the Starr Report, and bipartisan embarrassment at its memory has showed — basically unwelcome.
Now America is on the cusp of an end to that anomalous era. The change is change defined, most of all, by Facebook, where an ever-increasing share of Americans (and their so-called friends) have preserved embarrassing moments. Members of Mark Zuckerberg’s Harvard Class of 2006 who made it to graduation will be eligible to run for Senate in 2014. The early jokes that nobody of that generation would ever survive public life have been replaced by the reality that they all will. They’ve been building their memoirs of occasional error and excess, Obama style, in real time on their Timelines, with little calculation and far too much information.