THE citizens of the world’s most powerful country have recently been distracted by a piece of meaningless tittle-tattle. The current issue of People magazine has revealed what le tout Washington knew anyway: that Barack Obama has been having an affair with Jennifer Aniston. This intrusion took place despite the president’s creditable attempts at discretion: putting aside the normal trappings of office, he travelled to Ms Aniston’s flat in the evening and left in the morning (after bagels had been brought by the Secret Service) on a scooter, wearing a helmet with the visor down to conceal his face.
This reprehensible scandalmongering has focused attention on Mr Obama’s private life–which, as befits a man of stature, has been active and varied. His long-term partner was Hillary Clinton, whom he never married but with whom he has four children. Their political rivalry, alas, damaged their personal relationship, and he took up with Katie Couric, whom he installed as First Girlfriend in the White House. She has now been admitted to hospital–upset, as any journalist would be, at the publicity surrounding her beau’s latest amour.
It is now sadly unclear whether Ms Couric will be at Mr Obama’s side during his forthcoming visit to France, whose inhabitants, driven by puritanism or impertinence, may ask unreasonable questions. Outside America there is a regrettable degree of public prurience. Fortunately, Americans are more sophisticated than foreigners: 77% of them believe that the president’s private life is his own business. When, at a press conference, a reporter from Fox News asked whether Ms Couric was still First Girlfriend, and Mr Obama said briskly that the matter was private, journalists moved swiftly on to the more pertinent question of the medium-term fiscal deficit.
While amorous adventures are not a problem in Washington, they should not be flaunted. The publicity surrounding George W. Bush’s divorce from his wife Laura and ostentatious marriage to Beyoncé, a singer, was not just arriviste but also unpopular. Far better was the stealthy approach of the previous president, known as “trois minutes, douche comprise”–three minutes, including the shower–who was driven quietly to his mistresses’ houses by the official chauffeur, or that of his predecessor, whose illegitimate daughter lived at the taxpayers’ expense. The White House press pack politely kept his secret for 13 years, revealing it only the year before he left office.
Would America be a better place if its public figures behaved like François Hollande, Ségolène Royal, Valérie Trierweiler, Nicolas Sarkozy, Jacques Chirac and François Mitterrand, and if its people took as relaxed a view of sex as the French do? Probably more talented Americans would go into politics if they did not think they would be roasted alive for normal human frailty. There would be more Jack Kennedys and fewer Mitt Romneys. On the other hand, if France’s politicians were not protected by the law and a quiescent press, perhaps the National Front’s anti-elitist message would not go down so well. The answer, of course, is to follow the example of Britain, whose near-saintly politicians are gracefully monitored by the famously dignified denizens of Fleet Street.
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