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    Dr. Cleveland's Rule for Evaluating Rumors of Affairs

    So, the latest Republican self-immolation in the House apparently has now also spun off nasty little rumors of an affair between two Members of the House. Let me say, straight off, that I don't give a damn whether or not that's true. My issue with today's Republicans is not the conduct of their private lives, but the scandalous and shocking conduct of their public lives.

    They face important moral questions in the House every day and give immoral answers. When someone is for torture and against feeding the starving, adultery is really not the big moral issue.

    But that said, I'm inclined to believe that the rumors are more likely to be untrue than true. I could be proved wrong: it's maybe a 60-40 or 70-30 proposition. But the stories could just be a smear, especially considering the very shaky sources of the accusation so far. In fact, news outlets promoting this story should be ashamed for circulating these rumors without even one good source that can testify to their truth. And I am also skeptical because of my Rumored Affair Rule of Thumb: always be more skeptical of a rumored affair when the people involved are attractive.

    Rumors like this get started for many reasons (including, occasionally, because the rumor is true). But people repeat them for reasons of their own. Sometimes, a rumor like this has legs because circumstantial evidence keeps it going. Sometimes, the rumor sticks because people have an ulterior motive that the rumor furthers, as in many political situations. But also, in general, people tend to repeat a sexual rumor if they think it's hot. The sexier the people in the story are, the more people like that story. It's basic human nature. So a flimsy story featuring two attractive people (or just a conspicuously attractive woman) tends to flourish despite the lack if any good reason to believe it. The reason people believe those rumors is because believing them is titillating.

    People love love love talking about the rumored JFK-Marilyn Monroe affair, for example, although the evidence seems to suggest that it was basically just a one-night stand. But people love love love talking about it because nearly everyone finds at least one of those two people sexually attractive. Telling that story, or thinking about it, is a way of titillating yourself. On the other hand, you've probably never heard that Bob Hope had a confirmed and quite torrid affair with Ethel Merman, and you will probably blot that information from your mind by the middle of my next paragraph, because you really may not want to picture that.

    So my rule of thumb, especially but not exclusively with show business rumors, is to take a story where the protagonists are sexy (by the standards of their profession) as suspect until proven otherwise. When the sexiness of the couple is in doubt, I go with the question of how sexy the woman in the rumor is. Rumors about sexy people fly further on flimsier wings, so when someone tells you a hot rumor about Celebrity A and Celebrity B, what they are really saying is "I enjoy thinking about Celebrity A-and/or-B having sex." They're not necessarily telling you anything else.

    The current scurrilous rumor about two Republicans in the House involves two perfectly nice-looking people for their age and profession. They could not star in a teen romance movie, and neither happens to be my personal cup of tea, but for forty- and fifty-something politicians they look pretty good. And, more importantly, the female politician in the story is conventionally very attractive. When that woman's fellow Republicans gossip about her committing adultery, what they are really saying is that they enjoy thinking about that Congresswoman having some illicit sex. And a lot of them are admitting that they would like to be committing adultery with her. Maybe she actually has a lover. But that's not really the point. The rumor flourishes because the men she works with enjoy thinking about her with a lover. It goes with the territory, still, in 2015.



    Oh snap, your last paragraph is spot on, so is the rest Doc, but that last one is exactly what is going on here. 

    Thanks, tmc.

    Translation of the rumor: "We, the House Freedom Caucus, would like to hit that."

    It's also, in part, because he campaigned for her, joining her in NC on the trail. It wouldn't seem unusual for a high-ranking member to do so for a fellow male candidate, but obviously it's different when it's a female. And yes - had she been 65 and black it wouldn't have raised eyebrows. Then again, if that were the case it might never have happened at all.

    What I find somewhat stomach turning is that it has an underground, whisper campaign vibe. Doesn't need to be true, proven or lasting as a slur - it just needs to be effective. Start early, get noticed and when it matters get it used ... to hell with ruined careers.

    And Democrats need to remember that even when it's true, political shaming for personal misdeeds to gain political points damns the whole country to hypocrisy. Or worse, leads it to accept better liars.

    I have portfolio here because I instigated the rumor---the one about FDR and Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd who were contemporaries of mine and my motivations were different from what you attribute to the Republican legislators. Though the common opinion was that Lucy was more "attractive" than Eleanor, to me smart is attractive as well as purpose and energy level. For example, I am attracted to Ruth Wilson---who my partner refers to as duck lips---who is multifaceted and really smart. In any case I simply wanted to bring the Patrician populist lackey down any way I could and any misstep would have sufficed. I think the legislators are more suppressing their feelings as bad behavior, in a religious fundamentalist mold, than actively dwelling on them. But that's just my projection.

    We were watching the show, The Affair (which a writer described as a self-indulgent show when I thought it was the other way around---who gives a hoot whether or not the show was filmed in an ostentatious condo) with Dominic West and Ruth Wilson.

    Would you like to hit old duck lips, she asked.

    No. I said.  

    I always had a thing for Betty Ford. Obviously having her own clinic earned points - easy? One could only hope. While Gerald's away, the mice will play. I tried starting a rumour about the two of us, but didn't take. Was I not attractive enough? My shrink thinks I'm too hard on myself - only distance and lack of opportunity. Anyway, those were different times - nowadays we'd have a reality show. But no pitcher of martinis - one door opens, another door closes.

    I tend to think of you in the mold of Dominic West, but much smarter. So I would agree with your shrink and that you well buttressed your end of the Betty Ford rumor. It must have been that she was not rumor-worthy in that sphere.

    Thank you, you're very kind. You may call me "duck lips" if you like.


    Our actual discussion was whether women actors are actually being coached to "pout", kinda protruding the lips. Then we noticed that the wronged wife in the series was also, almost imperceptibly, trying to pout. Amidst this type of speculation, we also enjoy the series, and the two-part contra-narrative technique it uses in story telling.

    I remember the pouter in the carriage in a Room with a View.


    Yeah. Some sex scandals are based on actual sex. And lots are based on malice.

    If Mark Sanford, Governor of South Carolina, gets caught in a sex scandal, it's probably not because people want to picture Mark Sanford making hot sexy love. And that scandal didn't hit the media until there was serious, can't-explain-this-away evidence. He actually stepped off a plane from Argentina, after pretending he was elsewhere. (And for me, the abandoning his job responsibilities was the actual scandal.)

    If Nikki Haley, Governor of South Carolina, gets tarred in rumors about her sex life, there doesn't have to be much (or any) evidence. Because there are a large number of people who would enjoy imagining Nikki Haley having sex. That rumor makes it to the Internet whether it has much substance or not.

    When a rumor about a conventionally "sexy" woman (i.e., a woman that straight men think of sexually) starts flying, it's always important to take a step back and ask how much evidence is being offered.

    Great article, Doc. And let's not forget that though there are undoubtedly reasons gossip flourishes in our society (for example, to give voice to anxiety or, as you point out in your final paragraph, to express fantasies), those who are the subject of rumors can be severely damaged both professionally, personally and psychologically.

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