You’re a politician who’s just been exposed for cheating on your spouse. Your political career is over, right? These days, that might depend on your politics—and your relationship with a certain right-wing cable news show.
After revelations of an affair with an aide during the 2008 primaries, John Edwards’ career fell off the face of the Earth. The former Democratic presidential hopeful—who’d been talked about as a possible VP pick or as attorney general in an Obama administration—was not only shunned and condemned by Republicans and fellow Democrats alike, he also came in for harsh treatment from media figures.
As CNN commentator Jack Cafferty had it (Situation Room, 8/8/08), Edwards was through: “By tomorrow morning,” said Cafferty, “John Edwards will be lucky to get his calls returned by Howard Dean’s housekeeper.”
Noting that Edwards was receiving a large speaking fee for an event, a New York Daily News editorial (9/2/08) affected a sort of archaic dudgeon: “Surely it cannot be possible that we live in such a world as would reward such shabby behavior as his?”
Indeed, Edwards’ career would seem to be so over that its collapse was even used as a metaphor for other irretrievable ruins. If the Milwaukee Brewers had lost again to the Cincinnati Reds, wrote sportswriter Michael Hunt (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 9/10/08), “the year could’ve been as over as John Edwards’ political career.”
But the fact that Sen. John McCain, the then-presumptive Republican candidate, cheated on his first wife and then lied about it in his autobiography (L.A. Times, 7/11/08) didn’t have nearly the same effect on journalists. McCain’s extramarital history, which resulted in his leaving his wife and first three children, was hardly a blip on the media radar. As far as marital fidelity was concerned, media seemed to see McCain as fit enough to be president, while Edwards was rendered a political non-person, unworthy even of being paid for a speech.
But if there is a media double standard in the treatment of conservative versus liberal cheaters, Fox News host Sean Hannity takes it into uncharted regions of hypocrisy.
Hannity, the conservative co-host of Hannity & Colmes (Extra!, 11-12/03), has issued withering judgments on adulterers from former New York governor Eliot Spitzer (3/10/08, 3/25/08) to former New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey (9/20/06, 3/19/08) to, most recently, Florida Rep. Tim Mahoney (10/14/08). This in addition to former President Bill Clinton, who has been a special target of Hannity’s wrath over adultery for nearly a decade.
In August, when news broke of the Edwards affair, Hannity suggested the candidate’s personal failings made him unfit for public service (Hannity & Colmes, 8/12/08):
Explain to me—I’m just a regular guy. And I’m wondering if you can’t keep the promise to your family, can’t keep your promise to your wife, you’re having an affair, you’re lying about the affair repeatedly, why should the American people trust you when you say you’re not going to lie to them? Why should we trust you?
One might get the impression that Hannity doesn’t like cheaters, and believes there should be no place for them in public life. That impression would be wrong. Sean Hannity actually surrounds himself with adulterers—as long as they’re conservatives.
Since the primaries ended, Hannity did everything he could to see that John McCain was elected (FAIR Action Alert, 11/5/08), from hosting softball interviews with the candidate and running mate Sarah Palin, to anchoring endless segments featuring Obama detractors on such subjects as Bill Ayers, Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Rashid Khalidi. When co-host Alan Colmes (8/12/08) pointedly asked, “How can we trust John McCain” who “cheated, by his own admission, on his first wife,” Hannity quickly made excuses, explaining that it happened “30 years ago after five-and-a-half years in a prisoner of war camp.”
Before McCain, Hannity’s first pick as GOP nominee for campaign 2008 was another adulterer, former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. As mayor, Giuliani famously conducted a high-visibility affair, literally parading his lover at public events while still married to Donna Hanover, his second wife and the mother of his children. Then, in a particularly loutish move, Giuliani announced his decision to leave his wife and children at a press conference—his family learning the news via television along with the rest of the public (New York Times, 5/11/00).
Giuliani’s sordid behavior, which occurred less than a decade ago and can’t be blamed on having been a POW, never fazed Hannity, whose support included hosting his personal friend to softball one-on-one interviews on Hannity & Colmes (e.g., 6/12/07, 12/17/07) and even introducing the candidate at a private campaign fundraiser (Daily News, 8/19/07). Hannity’s support only stopped when the former mayor’s poor showing prompted his withdrawal from the primaries.
Hannity’s great affinity for conservative cheaters doesn’t end with presidential candidates; conservative adulterers tend to be the most frequent guests on the show.
Take Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House and frequent Hannity & Colmes guest. On James Dobson’s radio show (Focus on the Family, 3/9/07), Gingrich admitted cheating on not one but two former wives. Gingrich was actually cheating on his second wife as he was denouncing Bill Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky affair (London Observer, 9/16/07). But rather than denunciations from Hannity, Gingrich has only gotten more invitations: As of mid-November, Gingrich had appeared on Hannity & Colmes 33 times in 2008.
Dick Morris, whose conservative commentary has also been a staple of Hannity & Colmes for years, famously cheated on his wife with a prostitute while working for Bill Clinton, actually calling the president on a secured line while his paid companion listened in. Now an anti-Clinton crusader following his dismissal over the prostitute episode, Morris’ adulterous history hasn’t stirred up any scruples for Hannity, who’s had him on his show 76 times in 2008 as of mid-November.
Over the years, Hannity has shied away from repeated discussions of conservative adulterers such as the late congressmember Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) and sitting U.S. Senators David Vitter (R-La.) and Larry Craig (R-Id.)—despite or perhaps because of the fact that all three men were moral scolds who attacked Bill Clinton over his affair. Perhaps more remarkably, Vitter, who admits a history of consorting with prostitutes, and Craig, who was arrested for soliciting sex in a men’s airport bathroom, are both key proponents of “The Defense of Marriage Act,” a constitutional amendment outlawing same-sex marriage, based on the argument that it would debase the institution of marriage.
Hannity’s double standards (Extra!, 5-6/03) have led to gobsmackingly hypocritical moments, like one very awkward instance during a rant against Bill Clinton over the Lewinsky affair (8/17/98). Concluding his harangue, Hannity turned to his guests, including Dick Morris, and asked, “Why would America forgive that, and how do you ever trust this guy again?”
More recently (9/23/08), during a discussion of a book by actor Alec Baldwin, in which the actor writes of the lessons learned from his parental missteps, Hannity and his guest, conservative talk show host Bill Cunningham, traded sarcastic quips about Baldwin being “father of the year.” Each jokingly suggested other “fathers of the year” as candidates to write the Baldwin book’s forward. Cunningham suggested John Edwards while Hannity named Bill Clinton. The irony that Hannity was backing McCain for president, who not only had an affair but—unlike Edwards and Clinton—left his wife and the mother of his children, went unnoticed.
That’s not surprising, as Hannity’s confusion about concepts like moral and intellectual consistency seems nearly total. Sometimes it seems as if he literally is unable to grasp the meaning of such terms as “hypocrisy” and “double standards.” In a segment (8/24/01) about Democratic congressmember Gary Condit’s affair, when a guest who opposed digging into the personal lives of public figures argued, “I don’t think that any of it is really any of our business, just as it wouldn’t be our business if it was the president of IBM,” Hannity retorted, “Oh, moral relativism.”
Actually, the guest’s consistent position on privacy was the opposite of moral relativism, but the term applies perfectly to Hannity’s own situational ethics: According to Hannity’s rules, liberal adulterers are irredeemable moral outcasts, while the conservative variety, by virtue of sharing his views, are automatically excused.
Research assistance by Tess Hall and Daniel Ward.