Hansen: Rick Sheehy and the evolution of the Great American Sex Scandal - Omaha.com
Published Wednesday, February 6, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 9:47 am
Hansen: Rick Sheehy and the evolution of the Great American Sex Scandal

He carried on the affair for years, frightening friends and aides who worried that his personal life could derail his bright political future.

His wife found out, and he promised to quit, but instead he piled lies upon more lies to keep the affair going.

The year: 1918.

The politician: Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The same FDR who eventually navigated the Great Depression, beat Hitler's Nazis in World War II and is today considered by many to be one of our greatest-ever presidents despite having a mistress for three decades.

“How much did Americans know about FDR's affair? They knew nothing,” says Tim Borstelmann, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln history professor who specializes in 20th century presidents.

Lt. Gov. Rick Sheehy's alleged infidelity — an extramarital relationship and hundreds of calls on a state cellphone that led him to resign Saturday — is a variation on the same brand of dalliance that American politicians have practiced since they dotted the last i on the Declaration of Independence.

What's new — what's new in just the past four decades — is the birth of the Great American Sex Scandal, which ensnared the man who might have been Nebraska's next governor, countless governors and congressmen and, as you might remember, one president.

What has changed is virtually everything that surrounds a politician's cheating heart.

Let's start with Wilbur Mills, a powerful Arkansas congressman and the Godfather of the Great American Sex Scandal.

Sometime after midnight on Oct. 9, 1974, the Godfather found himself in a car with an Argentinian named Annabelle Battistella.


This would have been fine save for four complicating factors: 1) the Argentinian in question was a stripper whose stage name was Fanne Foxe; 2) the Godfather had been drinking heavily; 3) he got pulled over and 4) the stripper leapt from the car and jumped into the Tidal Basin, the 10-foot deep body of water next to the Jefferson Memorial, where police caught up with her. (Scandal trivia: Thomas Jefferson himself allegedly fathered several children with a slave he owned.)

Not coincidentally, 1974 is also when President Richard Nixon resigned. The press, burned by President Lyndon Baines Johnson's deceit on Vietnam and Nixon's Watergate lies, was in no mood to cover up the Godfather's 2 a.m. joyride.

Just as important, says historian Borstelmann, the public was in no mood to give the Godfather a pass.

“There had just been this huge shift in people's belief about the legitimacy of authority figures,” says the UNL historian, the author of a recent book about the 1970s. “They had seen that the emperor was wearing no clothes.”

Mills, chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, eventually resigned. The Godfather begat Gary Hart, who begat Bob Barr, who begat John Edwards. Elliot Spitzer called a call girl. Mark Sanford said he was hiking down the Appalachian Trail. Anthony Weiner tweeted photos of his ... well, you know. And so forth, and so on, right up to Nebraska's own Lt. Gov. Sheehy.

(More scandal trivia: Public scandal isn't wholly new. Way back in 1884, Grover Cleveland was rumored to have fathered an illegitimate child, leading Republican hecklers to show up at his campaign rallies and chant, “Ma, Ma, Where's Pa?”)

Today the epidemic is quite bipartisan and practically formulaic: Start with blaring headlines and a shocked public, often continue with a tearful press conference and photos of a wife standing uneasily by her man, and then usually finish with the sound of another once-promising political career hitting rock bottom.


UNL political scientist Dona-Gene Mitchell identified 25 separate scandals — 25! — during the 2006 election cycle. Some were financial in nature. Many were sexual. Virtually all had an impact on the election, she says.

Mitchell has done serious scandal research, including a 10-week study in which she introduced hypothetical politicians and their hypothetical scandals to real-life voters.

Sometimes she introduced the scandal early, before the voter had time to get to know the politician. This proved particularly damaging to the politician's career, she says, a fact that bodes badly for Sheehy, since most Nebraskans know little about him.

Sometimes she introduced the scandal late, near “election day.”

And sometimes she introduced a cascading series of scandals in the time-honored political tradition. Drip. Drip. Downpour.

She found one constant: The majority of the study's subjects did care about the hypothetical scandal, and it did sway their hypothetical votes.

This leads Mitchell to an important point: No matter how much Americans say they don't care about a politician's private life, they almost invariably do.

Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha in their new blog, From the Notebook.

“It tends to stick in people's minds,” the political scientist says. “They may forget political details, but if it's something juicy about a candidate's life, they remember that.”

The majority of us still tie monogamy to trustworthiness, Borstelmann says. We tend to not trust a cheater.

In other words, he says, we are not the French. Our politicians do not get to be François Mitterrand, whose mistress famously stood shoulder-to-shoulder with his wife — and his children by both women — at the iconic French president's funeral.

“If you are in a powerful position there and you don't have a mistress, you might be considered to have something wrong with you,” the historian says.

The American media will most likely continue to pry, and the American public will most likely continue to care even when people find that coverage overblown and distasteful, both professors say.

But a politician ensnared in his own Great American Sex Scandal needn't give up all hope.

The public does eventually forget almost any scandal, Mitchell's research shows, suggesting that the other thing we love — the Great American Comeback Story — might be just an election cycle away.

And if all else fails, don't forget one William Jefferson Clinton.

“Welllll,” says Mitchell when I mention Clinton's triumph as a promising sign for future political philanderers.

“He's definitely what we in political science would call an outlier.”

Contact the writer: 402-444-1064, matthew.hansen@owh.com, twitter.com/redcloud_scribe

Public officials and sex scandals

Contact the writer: Matthew Hansen

matthew.hansen@owh.com    |   402-444-1064    |  

Matthew Hansen is a metro columnist who writes roughly three columns a week focusing on all things Omaha.

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