Who knew the now-infamous C Street House could serve as the set for “Sex and the City”? The titillating tales just keep flowing from the congressional house of Christian fellowship. First there was resident Nevada Sen. John Ensign’s revelation about an affair with a staffer. Then there was regular visitor South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford’s revelations about his philandering; now it’s former Mississippi congressman Chip Pickering. His ex-wife claims that instead of praying, another woman was preying on her husband in that very house.
There was always controversy surrounding the redbrick row house near the Capitol. Some saw it as an escape from the world of Washington, a refuge for prayer and reflection. Others viewed it as headquarters for the sinister schemes of right-wing fanatics. Now mention C Street and you get nothing but behind-the-hand giggles. No wonder there’s a “code of silence” surrounding the place. Apparently, you put a bunch of men together in one house, and guys will be guys.
This particular house, of course, draws such attention because of the morality preached by its inhabitants. It’s not just what these guys did – and by the way, what were they thinking? – it’s what they said about other guys who did the same things that makes them world-class hypocrites as well as womanizers. And to have such a spate of sex stories all at the same time really can’t help but get our attention.
But men in Washington boardinghouses have never behaved well. In researching a book about early 19th-century women, Cokie nearly fell out of her chair when she came across an unpublished letter written by then Secretary of State John Quincy Adams’ wife, Louisa. In June 1820, she vented to her father-in-law, John Adams, that she had just learned that the orphan asylum would need more space because “the fathers of the nation had left forty cases to be provided for by the public.”
Forty pregnant women left behind by the 16th Congress! And there were only 232 of them. Furious, asylum trustee Louisa Adams huffed: “I recommended a petition to Congress next session for that great and moral body to establish a foundling institution” and use the $2-a-day pay increase they had voted themselves to fund it. Of course, such a thing never happened.
Obviously, it’s not just in boardinghouses that prominent men get into trouble. The first politician to go public with his infidelity was living in his family house in Philadelphia (his wife and children were away) when he embarked on an affair that could have ruined him. Alexander Hamilton, the good-looking man on your $10 bill, was charged with paying blackmail to cover up the fact that he had traded illegally in government securities. Not true, the Secretary of the Treasury declared, “not without a blush” – the husband of his paramour was blackmailing him.
Despite that devastating admission, Hamilton’s political career survived because his well-connected wife stood by his side, becoming the prototype of that woman we have seen way too much of who stands, usually wearing pearls and a stiff smile on her face, a little behind her husband as he confesses to some sordid scandal.
That has been one refreshing omission from the C Street affairs – the women have either stayed out of the picture or, in the case of the former Mrs. Pickering, gone on the attack. She has sued for alienation of affection, claiming that the “other woman” made Pickering quit Congress just when he might have been appointed to the Senate. We would be surprised if ex-wives have some legal recourse for disappointment over a Senate seat, but hey, Leisha Pickering’s going for it.
Jenny Sanford has held on to her dignity, refusing to say anything treacly about her lachrymose husband. And Darlene Ensign simply issued a statement – “With the help of our family and close friends, our marriage has become stronger,” since “we found out last year.” Seems as if John Ensign already knew, but at least Mrs. Ensign didn’t pull on her pearls and show up at his side.
Of course, she might not be so supportive now that she knows her in-laws forked over almost $100,000 to her husband’s mistress. Wonder whether they’ve given her little gifts like that? That’s just one of the questions we’re pondering. Another is what juicy story might emerge next from the C Street House where, prayer notwithstanding, it looks as if guys away from their wives, God help them, will be guys.
Cokie Roberts’ latest book is “Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation” (William Morrow, 2008). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2009, Steven and Cokie Roberts.
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