The Politics of Caesar’s Wife

In 62 B.C., the tribune Clodius Pulcher was caught sneaking into Julius Caesar’s house during a religious ritual forbidden to men. Clodius was allegedly attempting to seduce Caesar’s wife, Pompeia, who was hosting the ceremony and was rumored to welcome Clodius’ advances. Because the scandal happened at Caesar’s house, he divorced her.

At Clodius’ trial for sacrilege, however, Caesar testified that he knew nothing of the matter, despite the evidence and despite widespread rumors about Pompeia and Clodius. When asked by the prosecutor why then he had divorced his wife, Caesar responded with the now proverbial, “I thought my wife ought not to be under suspicion.” But as Plutarch adds, Caesar’s decision was not about upholding standards of religious purity or virtuous behavior. Caesar had made a political calculation: the accused was a tribune of the people and a favorite of the masses, who were threatening the jurors with violence. As a leader of the populares, the people, Caesar couldn’t afford to alienate his volatile supporters by testifying against their champion.

The recent numerous accusations of sexual misconduct, harassment, or assault by politicians and celebrities, some of which date back forty years, have been accompanied by condemnations of the accused redolent of the “Caesar’s Wife” standard: political leaders “ought not to be under suspicion.” In Caesar’s time as in ours, this rigorous standard of behavior reflects politics as much as a commitment to virtue.

After eight women accused U.S. Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.) of various forms of sexual harassment, more than 30 senators, including 21 women, five of them Republicans, called for him to step down. Most of the accusations comprised unwanted physical contact and clumsy passes; one, a photograph of Franken pretending to grope a sleeping journalist’s breasts, was clearly a juvenile gag. Franken in his resignation announcement did not apologize or admit his guilt. Instead, he claimed that some of the allegations were “simply untrue,” and others he remembered “differently.” He also decried “the false impression that I was admitting to doing things that, in fact, I haven’t done.” At this point, little corroborating evidence has surfaced that definitively proves Franken’s guilt.

As well as exposing a sexual offender, however, and asserting high standards of personal behavior, the reaction to the charges against Franken to many smacked of political expediency. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) was the first Democrat to call for Franken’s resignation, saying that “any kind of mistreatment of women in our society isn’t acceptable.” A few weeks earlier, after Gillibrand had criticized former President Bill Clinton for not resigning over the Monica Lewinsky scandal, many questioned why it took nearly 20 years for Gillibrand to acknowledge Bill Clinton’s transgressions.

Principled Stand—or Mere Opportunism?
More telling, several Democrats
accused her of hypocrisy and political self-aggrandizement. One anonymous Democratic strategist told The Hill, “All this reeks of is political opportunism and that’s what defines Kirsten Gillibrand’s career. Why wasn’t she talking about Bill Clinton when he was helping her during her various races for the House and Senate? And would she be talking about Bill Clinton today if Hillary Clinton was president? I think we all know the answer.”

Additionally, Gillibrand has for several years been rumored to be planning a run for the 2020 presidential nomination. She could be burnishing her credentials as a defender of women by turning on one of the party’s most visible and beloved standard-bearers, and by calling on a fellow Democrat to resign.

Moreover, Hillary’s defeat and continuing charges of corruption during her tenure as secretary of state, and the renewed attention given to Bill’s checkered history of sexual improprieties have tarnished the Clinton brand. It is likely that if Gillibrand does run, these public criticisms will help rather than hurt her. She will be a champion for women, a role critical for a party that counts unmarried and college-educated women as one of its most important constituencies.

Finally, if Roy Moore had been elected in Alabama, the contrast between her party condemning Franken and calling for his resignation and the Republican National Committee and a Republican president supporting an alleged child molester would have played favorably to that constituency.

How the Moore Matter Fits In
For many Republicans, particularly those critical of President Trump, Roy Moore was their own political and moral damaged goods that should have been cast out of the party.

The accusations against Moore, like those against Franken, have elicited the “Caesar’s wife” standard from those Republicans. Several Republican Senators had sworn to file ethics charges in the event Moore had won in order to eject him from the Senate. Senate Majority Leader McConnell said if Moore had been elected, “he would immediately have an issue with the Ethics Committee.” Senator Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) told CNN that “when it got to the 14-year-old’s story, that was enough for me. I said I can’t vote for Roy Moore.” Republican Senators Mike Lee of Utah and Steve Daines of Montana withdrew their endorsements of Moore. Former Massachusetts senator and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney tweeted, “Roy Moore in the US Senate would be a stain on the GOP and on the nation . . . No vote, no majority is worth losing our honor, our integrity.” Representative Will Hurd or Texas said Roy Moore was an “abomination to the Republican Party.” Prominent NeverTrump pundits have also been blistering in their attacks on Moore. Bret Stephens tweeted that the GOP has become the “GOPP. Grand Old Pedophile Party.”

The case against Moore, according to these critics, rested on allegations of behaviors so reprehensible that the mere suspicion of them—even if they have not been definitively corroborated—should be a cause for exiling him. Even if the party suffers, no electoral success is worth the sacrifice of principle.

But the same political calculations compromise these stands on principle. Mitt Romney is said to be preparing for a run on a Senate seat in Utah, where high moral standards are particularly important for voters. Other Republicans may be putting distance between themselves and a politician accused of assaulting “teenaged girls” (though all but one of the accusers were at or over 16—the age of consent in Alabama), perhaps calculating that given the Republican Party’s problem with women and college-educated voters, it may be imprudent to support Moore, particularly given the persistent sexual harassment complaints against Trump that surfaced during the primaries. In fact, three women came out to accuse Trump the day before the Alabama Senate election on December 11.

For Republican strategists, the division with the party between the Republican establishment and Trump’s base of working-class whites without a college education was being deepened by Trump’s support of the disreputable Moore and could have been politically fatal if Moore had won. As The New York Times reports, Trump’s support of Moore reflected this schism: “As the party prepares for a midterm election that could bring a fierce backlash against a historically unpopular president, Republicans are growing more alarmed that a difficult race could be made worse.”

Other Republicans worried about the blowback against Republicans in the midterm elections if Moore had won. As columnist Jonah Goldberg put it, “The simple fact is this guy, if elected, will be a disaster for Trump, conservatives, and the GOP alike—even if he votes in partisan lockstep with the Trump agenda. The mere act of him voting for good legislation will make it harder for some senators to vote for it.”

An Impossible Standard
The contrast between the Democrats’ banning of a sexual predator, and the Republicans’ acceptance of an accused “child molester,” would have been fodder for numerous Democratic campaign ads and speeches. As a Republican strategist has
said, “When it comes to 2018 this [election] could really be a lose-lose situation.”

Other Republicans have argued that Moore’s loss takes that issue off the table, leaving the sexual assault card a political trump for Republicans, since the bulk of the accusations have been against Democrats. As for Moore’s supporters, Trump himself made it clear that politics lay behind his support of Moore: “The future of this country cannot afford to lose a seat,” Trump said at a rally in Florida. “We can’t afford to have a liberal Democrat who is completely controlled by Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer,” the Democrats’ congressional leaders. Trump’s supporters agreed that to achieve the conservative agenda of rolling back Barack Obama’s progressive programs and policies, the Republicans cannot lose a single Senate seat given its slim two-seat majority.

Fact is, Trump was elected in part on the perception that the Republicans for too long had adhered to a double-standard of political decorum, and that now it’s time to take off the gloves and fight by the same rules. If that means sending an alleged “child molester” to the U.S. Senate, then so be it.

Of course, there is nothing exceptional about finding one’s principles to be also politically expedient, a fact of participatory politics since ancient Athens. But we live in an age of an incoherent coexistence of prudery and prurience. There’s something hypocritical about maintaining high Victorian standards of sexual behavior in a culture so sexually saturated since the 1960s that sexual practices and behaviors once hidden away have long been publicly available to teenagers. And given the power of surveillance created by smart-phones and social media, any accusation, no matter how lacking in evidence and corroboration, can get instant media distribution and credibility, and become a tool for leveraging a political advantage.

Today, however, we have raised the bar of rectitude so high that every politician or political candidate is like Caesar’s wife, and cannot be even under suspicion. Character and virtue count, of course, but judging both require a familiarity with a candidate’s record of behavior that cannot be gained simply by listening to a few speeches, or observing their level of decorum and style. Obviously, proven criminal acts of any kind should be made known and taken into our evaluation of a politician or candidate. On the other hand, clumsy flirting, incompetent passes, and childish gags should not be treated as crimes, and uncorroborated accusations of felonies long past the statute of limitations should not, without strong evidence, be assumed to be true or false just to serve political expediency.

Rather, in deciding on a candidate, voters should use discernment when deciding how much weight should be put on his record of public behavior, and how much on his political acumen and coherent understanding of the issues he is likely to face. This means we must trust in our own reasoned judgment of each candidate’s political principles and policy prescriptions, rather than relying on uncorroborated and sensationalized accusations that may not be a true or fair expression of his moral character.

In a democracy with wide participation by diverse peoples, the “Caesar’s wife” standard makes our already divisive politics even more trivial and contentious, as the promise of political advantage makes false accusations more tempting, and consumes our time in wrangling over disputed allegations rather than judging candidates by the soundness of their principles and policies.

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About Bruce S. Thornton

Bruce S. Thornton is a Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution. His books include "Greek Ways: How the Greeks Created Western Civilization" and "Democracy's Dangers & Discontents: The Tyranny of the Majority from the Greeks to Obama."