By Donella Meadows
–May 14, 1987–
It’s awful to watch the pack close in on the fox right in your own back yard.
Until Gary Hart arrived in Hanover last week, I had never seen the full fury of the press pursuing a hot story. Private jets with network logos descended on our little airport. The streets were jammed by TV vans topped with microwave dishes. Reporters interviewed anyone they could nab on the street.
Right there in the Hayward Lounge of the Hanover Inn, usually the site of polite tea conversations, they moved in for the kill. The 50-year-old Senator from Colorado faced a bank of cameras and lights. A hundred reporters stood ready to ask the crucial question: “Have you ever committed adultery?”
I thought it was sickening.
Not because of the crude behavior of the press, and not because I believe elected officials’ private lives are irrelevant to their public behavior, and not because I condone adultery or think Gary Hart would have been a great President.
What bothered me, and still bothers me, was that we brought down a man’s candidacy because he committed adultery, one of the most common sins of modern America, one that raises strong and mixed emotions in every one of us, one that our culture encourages and denounces but mostly denies.
We even denied that adultery was the issue. “I couldn’t care less what Gary Hart has been doing on weekends,” I’ve been hearing folks say. “The real problem is (pick one) his integrity, his clumsiness, the nosiness of the press, the election system, …”
The media aren’t fooled by that talk. They know what interests us. If Hart had integrity problems with his tax returns or his votes on the budget in the Senate, there wouldn’t have been a hundred reporters at the Hanover Inn. Adultery hits a national nerve. It’s close to home. A surprising number of us can empathize with Gary Hart or Lee Hart or Donna Rice. We’ve been there.
Gary Hart grew up in a society that told him adultery is a sin, but a thrilling, sophisticated, and even inevitable one. His parents and ministers condemned sexual adventurism, but advertisers subtly sold it, and movies glamorized it. He came of age bombarded by powerful messages, enticing and proscribing, liberating and admonishing.
No wonder he answered that killer question, “Have you ever committed adultery?” with a garbled reply that expressed not only his confusion, but the confusion of an entire generation.
He said, “I’m not going into a theological definition of what constitutes adultery. In some people’s minds, it’s people being married and having relationships with other people. Look, folks, there is something called fairness in this society. There is something called fairness. Now, I’m going through this and I will continue to and I’m going to answer questions. I’m doing my best and I’ll continue to do my best….Now, you can ask me about adultery and you can ask me any question you want,…but I am going to demand that this system be fair, and I have a right to demand it.”
How many of the reporters in the room could have done better if the spotlights had been turned the other direction? How many of them, how many of us, have committed adultery?
Once I was in a workshop with more than 100 married people, a place in which confidentiality was insured and truth-telling was safe. We were asked Gary Hart’s question. All those who had committed adultery were asked to stand up. Like him, we pretended we had trouble with the definition. It was read to us from a dictionary. Adultery: sexual intercourse between a married man and a woman not his wife, or between a married woman and a man not her husband. Couldn’t be more clear. Actually we’d known it all along.
People began, slowly, wordlessly, to stand up. Well over half the group did so.
The point wasn’t that adultery is OK or that people aren’t responsible for their actions even in a culture of temptation. The point was that adultery is a fact — a widespread fact buried under layers of public and private lies, guilt, denials, and rationalizations.
In a safe setting, without accusation or sanctimoniousness, we can admit that fact and proceed to ask why adultery is so pervasive, what it means for our lives and our society, how much contradiction and suffering (and excitement and release) it brings to us. Maybe we can even come to a clear understanding that it is a sin and we shouldn’t spend billions of dollars a year inciting people to it. Or that it isn’t a sin, and we shouldn’t censure people who commit it.
But in a setting where millions of people behind the cameras face one guy out in front and judge him as if his confusion were not ours, no truth is likely to come out of him or us. We can hound him out of his candidacy, but we will go away sickened, because deep down there is something of ourselves in him and him in ourselves.
Gary Hart may have committed adultery. He may not have the integrity to be a good President. The press may have been doing its duty. Still, the process would have been easier to stomach if the hounds had somehow admitted even a slight kinship with the fox.in, and we shouldn’t censure people who commit it.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1987