If there’s a line of demarcation when shame lost its status as a poison dart for a political career, it came in the late 1990s. President Bill Clinton’s dalliance with Monica Lewinsky was graphically described day after day. Clinton was impeached but not removed from office, and he left the presidency in 2001 with stellar approval numbers. He now is more personally popular than any other living former president.
“We have a society that’s more open to things that are not like us,” said Evans Witt, the president of Princeton Survey Research Associates. “We had always been comfortable if someone looks like me and acts like somebody I know. We’ve gotten beyond that.”
Exhibit A is President Barack Obama. Not to mention members of Congress who are openly gay.
At the same time, behavior once regarded as deviant or suspicious became commonplace. Divorce, let alone sexual affairs, were no longer career-killers. Neither was admission of drug use. Reports of such actions lost their ability to shock.
“Fifty years ago if you had an affair, it wasn’t covered,” noted John Geer, a co-director of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions at Vanderbilt University.
Now it’s not only covered, but such news also is so widespread that the public often becomes indifferent to matters that once would have jolted it.