Ashley Madison stupidly lets itself get pwned

So I have been streaming Mad Men on Netflix. It’s a strangely compelling series about the world of Madison Avenue in the 1960s. It’s a world of constant drinking, endless cigarettes and infidelity. The principle character is Don Draper (played by Jon Hamm), the creative director for the advertising firm Sterling & Cooper. As we quickly learn, Don was previously Dick, he is a deeply messed up man, and he also happens to be one hunk of a guy. Don’s a liberal drinker, a liberal smoker and a liberal bed hopper as well. He does this while somehow staying married to his ultra pretty and slinky wife Betty (January Jones).

It takes a few seasons but Betty eventually figures out Don’s infidelities. They divorce but Don keeps bedding the women, often inappropriately, including his secretary. Yet Don is hardly the only character in the series with his pants down. Most of the characters are involved in an illicit relationship or two. I have no idea how close any of this is to real life on Madison Avenue, but from what I’ve read it was not too far off the mark. Most of the men are caught between who they really are and the roles they are supposed to play. How they manage all this screwing around in these pre-Ashley Madison days is kind of mysterious, but likely all that booze helped reduce inhibitions.

Yesterday of course the infidelity website quickly went dark after hackers posted a dump of its database on a number of websites. While bad for cheaters out there, what it said about Ashley Madison was even worse. First, its security system was laughably bad. Second, even after the hack they could have taken down their site and saved their forty million members embarrassment, but they didn’t. They kept collecting fees right up until they went dark. In short, they gave the online infidelity business not only a moral stink but in an unexpected way: they were so busy chasing short term profits that they were willing to throw its forty million customers on mercy of their spouses. Doubtless the hackers provided samples to prove they had hacked the good stuff, including apparently seven years of credit card transactions. AM was hoping they would blink.

Doubtless too that marital counselors and divorce lawyers are going to get a sharp increase in business. It would not surprise me if their phones were ringing off the hooks. As for AM, I wouldn’t blame its customers if they arrived en masse to torch its offices. Cheaters of the world, unite! Anyhow, fifty years after Mad Men, there are still plenty of Don Drapers out there that are mostly hooking up online. Until a couple of days ago apparently Ashley Madison had the lion’s share and then some of this market.

What interests me is not that AM brokered infidelity. As disgusting as most people at least claim to view infidelity and those that aid them, there are far worse things on the Internet, with ISIS beheading videos coming immediately to mind. Some entities like AM are to be expected in our electronic age. What’s interesting and more than a little appalling is how bad a job they did in keeping their clients’ information confidential. As a software engineer, but also as a guy that is currently getting paid to ghostwrite articles about data security, AM gets an F.

Yes, AM kept a record of all its credit card transactions for the last seven years! It’s such a mind boggling, stupid and reckless thing to do, particularly given the profitability of the site. It would have made much more sense to give in to the hackers’ demands and quietly establish a new site under a new name, oh and fix those security problems too. Doubtless they had the money to do it. Forty million customers, figure 30 million of them men, figure each putting out at least $50 each, that’s at least $150 million in revenue. Since they’ve been in business fifteen years, it’s likely a lot more than that. Likely their overall revenue likely exceeded a billion dollars, not that we’ll know for sure. They aren’t publicly traded, although maybe their successor or whoever buys the brand (Vivid Entertainment?) will be publicly traded, and doubtless do a better job at security.

If I had fewer scruples and more money I might create the next AM site, one that its dubious clients could actually trust. Of course there are always risks in anything done over the Internet. AM’s clients now understand that. The next AM is bound to arise from its ashes, and probably sooner rather than later. Here are some actions items for whatever entrepreneur wants to sail in these turbulent waters in the future:

  • Do not keep records of credit card transactions. Just don’t. Purge these daily, if not more often, from any internal databases. Don’t journal them on backup somewhere.
  • Do not collect any privacy information from your customers, you know like their real names, address and phone numbers. Instead, let some third party act as your broker. Your client gives the broker some money and the broker provides some electronic token identifying the payee that doesn’t actually identify them to your company. The future AM should never collect anything that could identify their clients.
  • Accept more discreet ways of payment. There are lower tech and anonymous ways to pay fees confidentially: wire deposits and money orders, for example. I’d say accept BitCoins but BitCoins are hardly anonymous.
  • Don’t use cloud hosting. Use your own data centers that only you can access and control.
  • One person can’t do this in his basement. So find employees who have a history of being trustworthy, very talented, and discreet and pay them very well. Give them incentives to be discreet. Make their bonuses contingent upon their contributions to improving the business’s security.
  • Retain security experts. To get AM’s entire database required a whole lot of bandwidth. This can be monitored. The tools exist to cut off suspicious behavior already.
  • Do regular vulnerability testing of your website and applications. The tools are out there. Of course fix any vulnerabilities found quickly.
  • Hire a CISO, a Chief Information Security Officer with of course the right credentials.
  • Don’t store obviously sensitive information, like a client’s IP address. Passwords should be encrypted in a MD5 hash in the database.
  • Tell your customers what your security plan is. Get an annual (or more often) security audit from a trusted security auditor and publicize the results for your customers.
  • Provide your customers security tips, like clearing your browser history. I can think of another one. Figure out a way for clients to share pictures anonymously. I’m pretty sure it could be done with Instagram.

As for AM’s clients, those who are not on their way to marital counseling or divorce court, you might consider picking up strangers at bars again or just plastering them with lots of alcohol in the privacy of your office. It sounds cheaper and faster. It worked for Don Draper.

Did Petraeus betray us? Say no more!

Truly, I have lost all surprise when I hear that another prominent politician has been caught in infidelity’s web. Not that I haven’t found incidents like this latest one involving former general and CIA Director David Petraeus not to be blog worthy. The steady stream of these infidelities gives me plenty to discuss, and they conveniently happen when I am running out of ideas. I have blogged about dalliances by Rep. Anthony Weiner, Rep. Chris Lee, former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford (which was really more about his wife Jenny’s reaction to the affair), New York Governor Elliot Spitzer, John Edwards, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, astronaut Lisa Nowak and Bill Clinton. There are likely others I have blogged about that don’t come up with a quick search of my site.

Once I learned the details Petraeus’s affair, shocking to many, it did not surprise me at all. Paula Broadwell had spent years working on his biography, had access to inside information and apparently classified material, met with him frequently including in Afghanistan and they had a lot in common. He is physically fit and has zero body fat. She runs Iron Man marathons and is about twenty years younger than he is. This affair was a matter of spontaneous combustion: all the raw material was there once he bought her sales pitch for the biography. It would have only been a surprise had it not occurred.

Was it poor personal judgment? Certainly. Was it surprising in the least? Not at all. And yet predictably the pundit class was largely deploring the whole thing, acting more than a little like Captain Renault in Casablanca and declared our shock that there was infidelity going on with our CIA Director. For me, Monty Python came to mind instead:

“Eh? Know what I mean? Know what I mean? Nudge, nudge! Know what I mean? Say no more! A nod’s as good as a wink to a blind bat, say no more, say no more!”

Should people be upset? If I were Holly Petraeus or his immediate family I would be quite upset. Promises likely were broken, balloons burst, feelings of betrayal must be rampant and probably divorce proceedings will be forthcoming. As for the rest of us, it’s always a bit disheartening when our heroes prove as human as we are, particularly the ones we put on special pedestals like David Petraeus. He was a superstar, instrumental in turning things around in our disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and apparently a pretty good CIA director as well. He wasn’t quite so good at covering his tracks but goodness he must have had plenty of suppressed feelings to share, since apparently there were the equivalent of tens of thousands of pages of feelings to share in his GMail drafts folder. That’s a lot of feelings in a short period of time. I am impressed because in nearly ten years of blogging, I don’t think I’ve come anywhere near that. It must have made it hard to do any work. Gosh, it would be hard to actually meet and drop your pants for Paula. Who would have the time?

As a country, while we seem to loathe the French, there are times when I think we should admire them instead. At least on the subject of infidelity, the French have evolved. Basically, they just don’t care. They expect their leaders to have affairs. If they don’t appear to be having an affair, they assume they are probably having one anyhow. They are deeply suspicious of any politician who is not actually having one. There is something very peculiar about them, they probably think.

Americans are slowly adjusting. Bill Clinton’s tawdry oral affair with an intern only raised the wood of Republicans, who seem to have a Puritan streak in them while, secretly of course, they are busy engaging in the same philandering. I have observed from the many prominent infidelities that I have chronicled that professed beliefs have nothing to do with whether you will have an affair or not. Sinning is equal opportunity and party affiliation has no affect one way or the other.

Infidelity is all around us, we are just mostly not aware of it. Infidelity is not something that most of us will choose to acknowledge, and will only do so reluctantly when caught, and sometimes not even then. Somewhere between thirty and fifty percent of marriages have at least once incidence of infidelity in them. I was ruminating on this yesterday when I was walking the neighborhood for exercise. There were all the happy kids jumping in piles of leaves, dads doing woodwork in their garages and families coming home from their local house of worship in minivans. All this ordinariness and virtue and likely in at least one out of three of the houses I passed there was one or more cheaters, just like David Petraeus, just not as newsworthy.

And yet I live in a very safe neighborhood. All the infidelity doesn’t seem to be attracting crime or lowering property values. It may lead to an occasional For Sale sign or a neighbor mysteriously moving out of the neighborhood on no notice. Whatever this infidelity thing is, it is not the equivalent of robbery, or murder, or assault with a deadly weapon. (The frying pan thrown by your wife when you disclose your affair might result in a charge of assault with a deadly weapon.) It is likely personally devastating to the innocent spouse (who I suspect is not so innocent) but it is not generally a sign that the unfaithful one is a complete loser, never again to be trusted with anything more important than an expired lottery ticket.

The French figured it out. Affairs do not speak to our better nature, but they happen, so let’s stop pretending that they mean more than they mean. So should we. In this case though there might actually need to be legislation. Let’s call it the “Infidelity Forgiveness Act”. If you are a politician caught being unfaithful, you are allowed to retain your job and your benefits providing of course that no ethical or criminal barriers were transgressed. And any such investigation shall remain confidential, certainly to the potentially aggrieved spouse, unless there are resulting charges.

Given that Broadwell apparently had classified information on her computer’s hard drive, there are legitimate questions about whether Petraeus provided them. Assuming the investigation shows no wrongdoing by him and his job performance is satisfactory, he should be allowed to remain in office and keep competently doing his job until such time as your chain of command decides he should not.

Know what I mean? Say no more!

Weiner is guilty of being a male

I told former Representative Chris Lee when he abruptly resigned in February that he would not be at the back of the line of unfaithful politicians for long. Perhaps I should claim an award for precognition but really, it’s a no-brainer. Philandering (almost always male) politicians are a dime a dozen, and every couple of months at most another one gets caught. The latest, of course, was Rep. Anthony Weiner (NY) who was exposed by the puritanical and anally obsessed conservative Andrew Brietbart for the political sin of posting pictures of his, well, wiener on YFrog, which is a sort of Twitter server optimized for linking Twitter content to pictures.

Like Chris Lee, Weiner does not appear to have done anything actually illegal. Unlike former executive of Prince Georges County Maryland, Jack B. Johnson, Weiner won’t be going to prison for accepting more than $400,000 in bribes. Rather, Weiner is guilty in the court of public opinion of “emotional infidelity”, general stupidity and the egregious misuse of Twitter to badly seduce women over the internet. He did this by sending pictures of what appears to be his erect penis masked behind some briefs (and allegedly more explicit pictures) to one or more women not his wife over the Internet, none of whom he actually met. Weiner apologized to his wife and family and says he plans to stay in Congress. No other member of Congress will come within a hundred feet of him, of course, probably because they are afraid they will get cooties. Washington’s neo-Puritans, of course, are calling for his head. Thou shalt have no member of Congress who cannot successfully mask his or her sexual urges for someone other than their spouse because, as we all know, one moral slip means you cannot do your job.

Occasionally though a politician finds himself with his pants down publicly and manages to hang on anyhow. Bill Clinton did it, even though it was pretty clear that he was guilty of perjury. I too might have perjured myself rather than admit I had an oral affair with a buxom and comely office intern half my age. (I might have bragged about it in the shower room, however.) Clinton was impeached anyhow, but not convicted. His bar license was taken away from him, but he left office happily, established charities, worked for international peace and made tons of money as a speaker and author. In fact, he left office with some of the highest approval ratings of any president, in spite of his sins. It turned out that Americans judged their president more by whether they had a job and their standard of living increased than about a minor bit of philandering and lying about sex. So my advice to Andrew Weiner: if you were as effective as they say you are, hang in there anyhow. You may be guilty of emotional infidelity (what exactly is that anyhow?) and, like Chris Lee, bad judgment likely due in part to your sky high testosterone levels, but your work in Congress until now has been excellent.

I will not claim that I am holier than Andrew Weiner. I can truthfully state that I have not sent pictures of my privates over the Internet. Why would I feel the need to do so? It helps for me to be married, of course, but my experience with women is they are much more interested in the whole person than your junk, so if you really want to seduce a woman on the Internet, do it with your words, not pictures of your crotch. Also, I suspect I am not as “gifted” as Weiner.

However, if I was gay, then I might have sent such a lewd photo because guys, regardless of their sexual orientation, find penises professionally interesting. We find pictures of penises in relation to other mostly naked people arranged in a prurient fashion particularly interesting. Unlike ladies, we don’t need a mirror to see our private parts. If we didn’t touch our private parts multiple times a day, we would soil our clothes. If I was gay and hunting for a hot date over the internet, and I might be able to close the deal for a meeting with a picture of my privates, I might have done it. I certainly would not have done it using my real name, however.

Andrew Weiner is guilty of stupidity, something that happens to otherwise intelligent men more frequently than we would care to admit. It is likelier to happen particularly when our testosterone levels are high, or our spouses are on their periods or (like many spouses) they just aren’t in the mood to fool around, which sometimes can go on for months. Insurance actuaries can attest that high testosterone causes otherwise sensible teenage boys to wrap their cars and themselves around telephone poles, and even the smart students do it, but perhaps less often. In middle age, high testosterone sometimes makes men like Andrew Weiner send pictures of their engorged underwear to very unlikely romantic prospects electronically over the Internet. In earlier generations these guys acted more like Andy Capp, hung out at the local tavern and pinched the bums of the local wenches. We’re so much more discreet about it now that we have the Internet thing. We’ve come a long way, baby.

Weiner is a reasonably handsome guy, but he must have realized that his chances of scoring a home run were about one in a thousand. What this did for him, at least for a short while, is scratch his chronic itch in what likely seemed to him to be a relatively safe way. You may catch an Internet virus sending that photo to a distant potential paramour, but Norton Antivirus will kill it. You sure won’t catch a STD. Weiner’s action was still stupid but as any guy with sufficiently high hormone levels knows, your probability of doing something stupid increases with elevated testosterone levels. That’s just a fact. Ask any guy, but those who claim otherwise are probably guilty of being sanctimonious liars.

Here’s the thing though: even when your hormone levels are high, a guy can still exercise reasonable judgment about other things as long as they are not sexual. You still can multitask. You can still ask a probing question in a committee hearing. You can even do stupid stuff like Weiner did and still love your spouse. Now I know what you women will probably say: he does not love me if he does stuff like this in the first place. Duh! Yes, it is possible that he does not love you and he has mentally left the marriage. It’s much more likely that he still loves you, but loves you on his terms, not yours. Most likely it was either you or society which imposed either explicitly or implicitly what those terms were going to be. To a guy, except for those so deep into the bowels of religion that they cannot recognize their own legitimate feelings anymore, this duality is all perfectly consistent, particularly when your hormones are surging.

One of the virtues of middle age in men is that your hormone levels tend to surge less often, so you are less likely to do overtly stupid stuff like Weiner did. Still, the likelihood remains as long as you are a male. We didn’t ask for it, but we men are programmed to be overtly sexual. Masking it in any way is somewhat unnatural. We control it, to the extent we can, by having an excellent sex life with our spouse (which rarely happens) and by daily mindfulness. But it’s sort of like being an ex-smoker asked to never smoke another cigarette again. You can follow strategies to reduce the likelihood of smoking, but the craving will always be there.

Many of you will disagree with me, particularly if you are a female, but I assure you there is a huge Alleluia Chorus of guys out there too shy to leave comments singing “Ahem”. Yes, what Weiner did was hurtful to his spouse and family, but it was not illegal. From the standpoint of fitting into polite society and advancing in a social hierarchy, which is very important to politicians, it was extraordinarily stupid. Yes, if he meditated on it long enough he probably could have prevented it. Still, Weiner is basically guilty of being a guy with an active endocrine system. Give him a break for a first offense.

Rep. Chris Lee fails Infidelity 101

Hey Chris Lee! I am glad to read that you resigned from the House of Representatives today. (Republican House Representative (NY-26) Chris Lee resigned after the web site Gawker published correspondence that he was pursing a woman on Craigslist who he was trying to date. He sent her a picture of himself naked from the waist up taken with his Blackberry and identified himself by his real name.) You are too stupid to be in Congress anyhow.

I am sure your wife and kids won’t be happy with this attempt at infidelity, but I won’t give you a hard time about that. There’s obviously a lot of it going on, and if infidelity made you deathly ill at least a quarter of Congress would be dead. No, you are just the latest hypocrite to be caught. The good news: at least you weren’t caught with your pants down, just your shirt off. The bad news: you failed Infidelity 101.

I mean, your stupidity was just breathless! If you want to screw around with another woman while married, start by using an alias. Particularly if you are a member of Congress, do not give your real name, well, at least not until you are so far in bed together (either actually or figuratively) that it really doesn’t matter. I am glad you learned about Craigslist. It shows you have an elementary grasp of this Internet thing. Now here’s another site you might want to check: Google. It’s a search engine. Type in anyone’s name and you can probably learn a lot about them. Since you are a politician, your name will be near the top of the rankings. That’s all it took for your potential paramour to smoke you out. Dumb. Really dumb.

Second, these search engines are also great at finding images of people. After searching on your name, click on that images link in Google. Notice anyone familiar? It doesn’t have to be Google. Bing, Yahoo and any search engine worth it’s salt will find your picture in three clicks or less.

Third, while married men trolling for single (generally younger) gals are nothing new, most of those who actually hope to succeed should probably be looking for an accomplice in crime. A single woman who is interested in you will soon smoke you out. It could be little clues like you are only available between 8 AM and 10 AM Monday thru Friday, or you never take them home to meet your Mom and Dad. A philandering politician with brains will probably not troll Craigslist for a woman in the first place. Instead, they will look for someone emotionally vulnerable conveniently right in the office. (Hint: check out your congressional interns and pages. It worked for Bill Clinton!) Failing that, they will seek out someone who also has something to lose: a married woman. In the infidelity business, double jeopardy is good. Yes, it’s possible her husband will come after you with a baseball bat while you are making whoopee, but them’s the breaks. (Hint: lock the door!) In short, in responding to a Woman seeking Man ad, perhaps you should have tried Craigslist’s Casual Encounters section instead.

Fourth, while Gawker did not publish your email address, it would be wise to not use your email address. It might raise a suspicion when you declare yourself a divorced lobbyist that maybe you are not entirely honest.

Fifth, if you must send a picture of yourself, at least make yourself a bit hard to identify. Wear sunglasses or something. Photo matching is getting better every year, but your eyes give away your secret identity. If you must send a picture of your face, at least reduce it and use Photoshop so it renders a bit fuzzy.

Sixth, if you are a prominent person, understand that if you want to indulge in some philandering you will have to do it with people you know. Politicians usually have learned how to be charming. It’s time to pour on the charm with the women. You are reasonably handsome. With a little charm and a touch of innuendo, it’s very likely she would have made the first move. Then you could at least claim to have been emotionally vulnerable. You could blame it on the long hours or something. I’m sorry, but married politicians with any semblance of brains just don’t get to use Craigslist or any online dating service.

Now get to the back of the line. Take some comfort in that you are hardly alone, just the example of the moment. I don’t know if you actually succeeded or not, but if not then you can honestly say that technically you did not commit adultery. You can take your place at the end a long line of much more prominent politicians. Rest assured someone else will be behind you shortly. In fact, in a few weeks you will fade from our collective memory. When your wife ditches you, as she probably will, simply move out of state and pick up a different career. Even so in your newly single state, you might want to change your legal name. The good news is then you can post a legitimate ad in the Men seeking Woman section of Craigslist. Your brain may be defective but, hey, even I will acknowledge your nice abs.

(P.S. And thanks for giving me something to write about. I was having a brain fart.)

Seriously Jenny?

In case you haven’t noticed, I just love news stories about politicians that cannot keep their zippers zipped. One rarely learns anything new from these news stories, but they always amuse and entertain even though they are heart-wrenching experiences for the aggrieved spouse and family. It seems that cheated ex-wives (and ancillaries who facilitated the cheating) are competing with each other for Amazon bestseller status. There has been a whole rash of books lately. Elizabeth Edwards recently released Resilience, her tell all book about her marriage to John Edwards. Also hot off the presses is The Politician by Andrew Young, the former myopic and masochistic aide to John Edwards wherein we get all sorts of details we probably did not want to know. These include that Edwards’ bit on the side, Rielle Hunter, couldn’t be bothered to clean up a pot of spilled coffee. Why bother when there are maids for these sorts of things? Anyhow, perhaps John would have commanded Young to lick it off the floor. If pretending to be the father to Rielle Hunter’s love child was not beneath him, licking up spilled coffee off a hotel room floor should not be either. God, what a sap.

There is also Jenny Sanford’s recent book Staying True. Jenny is of course the soon to be ex-wife of South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, who earned his day of infamy last June when he was supposed to be hiking the Appalachian Trail alone but was instead in Argentina crying over losing his mistress. Good news, Mark. Within a few weeks, you will be legally able to marry your soul mate. Some how I’m betting she won’t let you come within a hundred clicks of her.

Staying True seemed like a good name for the book, for there are few things that women like to read more than stories of courageous women who take their vows seriously. Jenny may have had a philandering husband, but at least she was faithful to her vows: score! It’s hard to feel sorry for any philanderer and I certainly felt no sympathy for Mark when I learned of his indiscretions. That is I didn’t until yesterday when I read this news article.

South Carolina’s first lady says her wedding was a “leap of faith” because Gov. Mark Sanford, who famously cheated on her with a woman he described as his soul mate, did not want to include a vow of fidelity in their marriage ceremony.

Not having a vow of faithfulness “bothered me to some extent, but … we were very young, we were in love,” Jenny Sanford tells Walters. “I questioned it, but I got past it.”

In her memoir, a copy of which The Associated Press obtained Tuesday, Sanford writes that her groom was worried “in some nagging way” that he might not be able to remain true.

“With the benefit of the knowledge I have about Mark now, I could point to this moment as a clear sign of things to come,” she writes. But at the time, she found his honesty “brave and sweet” and thought he just had cold feet.

The first time I read this I thought, “This has to be a joke.” Apparently not. Here is the aggrieved soon to be ex-wife of the conservative South Carolina governor writing a book called Staying True for crying out loud wherein she gets to proclaim how justifiably aggrieved she is. She gets to say how important fidelity is to her in a marriage and yet she went into the marriage knowing that her husband could not promise fidelity. She found his honesty “brave and sweet”.

Oh kay… Jenny, you must have been high on something at the time and I will be charitable and say it must have been the love hormones that made you temporarily lose your mind. I applaud you for your honesty with this admission but really, anyone who bought your book should demand their money back. Yep, your soon to be ex-husband is still a philanderer and a snake. But it’s not like he didn’t warn you. Most philanderers leave their spouse in the dark until the evidence becomes impossible to ignore, you pick up a STD or they mysteriously move out in the dark of night. Here Mark told you up front that he wasn’t sure he could be faithful to you and you married him anyhow.

Now I haven’t read the book to know if there is more to this but if fidelity is so important to you that you write a book called Staying True, for crying out loud, don’t you think you should have made it a requirement before agreeing to take the marriage vows? Granted, the Guv’s stepping out on you was not right. I hope you at least had the understanding that his extramarital relationships would be in the sunshine. But it’s not like he was not up front about his feelings before marriage. Basically, the Guv was saying he too had doubts about marrying you, but when he disclosed how he was honestly feeling, you swept an issue of such critical importance under the rug.

We all make mistakes in our marriages and I know I have made plenty. This one though was a whopper. You absolutely should not have married the guy if fidelity was important to you. And you certainly should not be writing a tell all book called Staying True saying what great character you have in contrast to your soon to be ex-spouse. Maybe it should have been titled, God, I was such a Putz.

The Guv told you he was a snake. Snakes bite. You married him it appears on the expectation that through the course of marriage you could change this. Smile sweetly, raise a bunch of healthy kids and perhaps your hope was that all such concerns would simply vanish. It sounds like you projected your feelings about fidelity onto him once the marriage was underway. He probably snuck around in part to spare your feelings. Granted it was a stupid thing for him to do, but no more stupid, in fact a lot less stupid than you were for marrying him. His behavior after marriage was not decent, but at least he was decent up front about it before tying the knot.

I haven’t read what you plan to do with the profits from the book, but here’s hoping that you at least donate the money to a good charity. Here’s a spouse abuse shelter I can recommend that desperately needs your money. I’ve given them quite a handful this year as the D.C. government greatly reduced their contributions due to the recession. Perhaps this would be a way to atone for your serious lack of judgment thirty some years ago.

If you ever decide to remarry, I hope this time that you will have the good sense not to marry the dude without making sure he first agrees to a sexually and emotionally exclusive marriage with you and you alone.

The illusion of fidelity

(I am in Salt Lake City attending the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association. I have attended a lot of seminars and worship services and heard a lot of sermons. Although not an ordained minister, in the spirit of this extraordinary week of learning, I offer my own sermon for your consideration.)

Death and infidelity are in the news. Michael Jackson’s death (whose cause is at this time unknown) has had the effect of directing more traffic to my site, principally to this 2005 post where I said I believed he was a pedophile. A jury subsequently disagreed with me but no one would dispute that Jackson was one odd bird. I am not too surprised he died early. Bizarre people like Jackson often do. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards may be exceptions to the rule. Even I cannot deny Jackson’s talent. He was more of a rubber dancer than Fred Astaire and he oozed talent and creativity.

Also entering immortality is the actress Farrah Fawcett, who burned an indelible impression in the minds of forty or fifty somethings like me. Her swimsuit poster with her toothy grin and cascading blonde tresses was ubiquitous in teenage bedrooms and college dorm rooms in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Fawcett though was something of a surprise, eventually shedding her bimbo image and proving herself an excellent actress in made for TV movies like The Burning Bed (1984). General box office success unfortunately proved more elusive.

Both Jackson and Fawcett are my peers, so their untimely deaths make me wonder if I will draw the short straw from life too. There is no way to know. I have done much to lower the odds of dying in middle age and there is much more I could do. I get enough Buddhism from my wife to know that death is in our nature. At best it can be postponed. We all ultimately return to the stardust from which we came. It is our destiny. We are impermanent. In fact there is nothing permanent except change.

Perhaps the stars are aligning strangely because in the news we have both untimely celebrity deaths and newly revealed cases of infidelity among prominent politicians. Is it just circumstance or could there be a link between these prominent deaths and all the recent episodes of infidelity in the news? I think there is a relationship.

I believe that the animus of infidelity, at least in middle age, are not so much character flaws but aging. As our date with death becomes more real with every passing year, inevitably you have to examine your life and the choices you made and wonder if the fit is still good. I am certainly not the same person at age 52 that I was at age 28 when I married, nor is my wife. Unlike South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford and his wife, my wife and I exchanged no traditional pledge of sexual and emotional exclusivity on our wedding day. I was perhaps a bit prescient even then that if I made such a pledge I would eventually prove myself a liar. Perhaps Mark Sanford and his wife would have been smart to do the same thing. It is hard to say for sure but in my case I suspect by not excluding sexual relationships that fooling around lost much of its allure. Of course it is also far easier to avoid infidelity when mindful of the consequences of doing so in this modern age, which could easily be disease and which could potentially be deadly. In my case fear of death helps triumph over the seven year itch.

My wife and I are clearly the exception. For most married people, the idea of keeping the fidelity door even slightly ajar is a ghastly idea. It is not so much an issue among Unitarian Universalists like me. My suspicion is that vows of sexual fidelity are more likely written out of marriages performed in Unitarian Universalist churches than expressly stated. I did promise to love my wife with all the energy I could muster. Based on my experience this may be much harder than traditional vows of sexual and emotional exclusivity. Paying close attention to her feelings and listening to her with an open heart day in and day out for twenty plus years have been at once both a joy and a burden. No fleeting sexual liaison could or should mean as much as this enormous effort of sustained time, attention, caring and concern, which continues nearly twenty four years later.

Most infidelity though is not really about the sex, but about the heart. Affairs that are strictly sexual but lack emotional depth are generally forgivable. Those where cares and concerns move from the spouse to another generally result in divorce. It is clear that Mark Sanford’s affair fell into the latter category, given by his own admission that he spent five days in Argentina crying. Why did he do it? Why did Senator John Ensign, Former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer or Former Senator John Edwards? I have seen pictures of their wives and in each case I think it cannot be because their spouses are ugly hags. Most are exceptionally attractive and personable women. I suspect the infidelity is due to the anxiety of watching sand drop through the hourglass of their lives and wondering, Is this it? I suspect that in most cases they found their relationships with their wives enriching, but not enriching or exciting enough to wholly fill their emotional and sexual needs or to close the gap of anxiety created by their aging.

The honorable thing of course is not to have an affair, but first divorce your spouse and then put yourself on the market. This is nice in theory, but hard to do in practice, particularly if you have children and especially if you are a politician. Politicians rise by selling an image of themselves, and you believe that voters must buy into the image of a superman in order to trust you with their vote. You must be smart, personable, persuasive, a terrific husband, a wonderful father as well as a man of faith, character and deep convictions. This is fine but of course it is almost always an illusion. Almost no one possesses all these gifts. Even if they do for a time, sustaining it for a lifetime is often very hard to do. We have our nature and our mortality working against us.

I hate to break this to all the heartbroken wives (and husbands) out there, but at some point fidelity in a marriage is almost always self delusion. You are most likely to find fidelity in someone who is simpleminded or whose emotional needs are easily satisfied. If you find someone like this, it helps if you are the same way yourself. However, if you marry someone who is ambitious like any politician of stature and they never fall off the wagon, consider yourself exceptionally fortunate.

Men buy into fidelity because it is the price they have to pay to live with a woman. A wife gives a man not only steady sex (a very hard thing for a man to get) but also a social stature and connections that cannot be acquired as a bachelor. Many pledge fidelity with the highest intentions only to discover that they did not know what they were pledging. How could they really, since they had not experienced the reality of a long term marital relationship? In a way, marriage is like giving a new driver the keys to a new and shiny Camaro that he lusted after but requiring them to never drive another car.

Fidelity will always be tentative. It will always be a daily decision by each spouse to continue to be faithful. In reality philanderers like Mark Sanford emotionally left their marriage long before trading furtive emails with distant romantic prospects. Fidelity can perhaps be realized through the application of sufficient doses of societal guilt, but this is a technical fidelity, not fidelity of the heart. Fidelity of the heart, when it is achieved, is realized only through the sustained commitment by both partners to invest enormous amounts of emotional energy (time) in the relationship. It requires daily mindfulness, daily intimate communications and it often gets harder the longer the marriage lasts. Even then there is no guarantee that with the application of regular high dosages of emotional energy that it will succeed. Every day in a marriage offers the potential for infidelity.

Why is this? It is because time changes all things, including people. We buy into marriage and the notion of fidelity because we want to believe that at least one aspect of our life can be unbreakable and unchangeable and endure even beyond death. This is the promise and illusion of love. While love itself is real, it can be realized only through the flawed talents of ordinary people. The nature of the universe of course is just the opposite. Nothing is permanent. Nothing endures forever. The participants in a marriage are going to find that who they are will change over time. Hopefully both will change in ways that will keep the relationship flourishing and engaging. But there are no guarantees and as time progresses the odds are stacked against the spouses.

Perhaps it is better to be like the Buddhists and live in the moment, appreciating the richness of each day with your spouse. When infidelity comes knocking on your door, it is going to pierce your soul like a knife through the heart. What is really dying though is the illusion that you can remake the ways of nature. The pain of infidelity though does not have to last forever. People can and do move beyond its pain all the time. Something will come along to replace the feeling that will be hopeful and more healing. This too is a part of life. Hope, loss, suffering and the rebirth of the spirit come with the territory of being a human.

All souls are adrift on an endless sea. Seas may be calm or stormy but the sea cannot be calm forever. It must churn itself up into a frothy white at some point. So too must souls.

Johnny, we hardly knew ye

Lord, another politician has fallen. If politicians were trees in a forest, citizens would be going deaf from all the careening trees of late. Today’s infidelity poster boy is John Edwards, the handsome and charismatic ex North Carolina senator blessed with teeth so wide and bright they could burn your retinas. Edwards was John Kerry’s running mate in 2004 and was a twice a Democratic presidential candidate.

Count me as one of those not the least bit surprised by these latest revelations. Part of my problem with John Edwards latest presidential foray was that he was too good: too handsome, too eloquent, too slick, too squeaky clean. He was more rock star than presidential candidate. He was the politician’s equivalent of a traveling evangelist. He could fill up a tent, or a town hall and like the Pied Piper have the crowd in the palm of his hands. Among liberals, he was the clear favorite for president. Until he dropped out, he consistently outpolled the other candidates on the liberal blog Daily Kos. Many of his supporters were heartbroken when he dropped out of his presidential campaign. Many of them now are furious, for they gave hundreds or thousands of dollars to his campaign and poured out their passion because they believed in him. They thought he was the real deal. They believed not just in his politics, but his image. Here at last was a handsome, charismatic man dopily devoted to his wife, who was also a few points lower than him on the attractiveness scale. That he was standing by her in spite of her terminal illness made him even more of a principled human being.

Instead, he was getting a bit on the side. Her name is Reille Hunter, age 44 (Edwards is 55), a skinny platinum blonde whose firm also earned a cool $100,000 from Edwards’ political action committee for producing four short web videos. To quote George Gershwin, it’s “nice work if you can get it, and you can get it if you try.” I bet Hunter did not have to try too hard. Oh, she did have to change her name. Lisa Druck just wasn’t cutting it. Reputedly, the two first met in a bar.

Why did he do it? Only John Edwards can answer that one, but I would view any rationalization he comes up with suspicion. If I had to guess the real answer would be very close to Bill Clinton’s: “Because I could”. Hunter was younger than his wife and arguably prettier. Hunter must have found plenty of men to admire in the Edward campaign because she produced a child that Edwards says is not his, but instead is apparently one of his staffers. For John’s sake, I hope he wore a condom.

I have ruminated before on the subject of infidelity. Among the recent politicians with problems keeping their pants up was the former governor and attorney general of New York State, Eliot Spitzer. Virtually everyone publicly decries infidelity. (It also keeps a number of newspapers and magazines in business.) It is also probably true that something like half of all marriages have at least one incident of infidelity. With statistics like these, you would think the shock value would wear off.

However, when you are a politician running for office, it’s all about trust. Fidelity with the voter has to be your main selling point. Biologically you may have the same yearnings as the rest of your brethren, but you must sell yourself as someone beyond the casual, tawdry affair. Few spouses who have been cheated on can even muster the courage to trust their partner with a checkbook. Can politicians successfully compartmentalize, as Bill Clinton seems to have done, and really keep their bedroom shenanigans separate from their public duties?

Since most of us cannot compartmentalize like this, when we find out our politician du jour is capable of such infractions, we would rather see the bum kicked out. Yet, infidelity is hardly a death sentence for a politician. Rudy Giuliani cheated on his wife openly in front of the press corps, and yet for months was considered the most likely Republican to win the nomination. Ironically, he lost to another adulterer, John McCain, who clearly was getting a bit on the side from Cindy well before his first marriage ended. He likely got some other tail during this period too. Yet, people seem to look the other way regarding his infidelity, perhaps because the press doesn’t want to raise the issue. Or perhaps it is okay in McCain’s case because he is a maverick and thus being consistent with his persona. So I would not assume that John Edwards political career is over. At least his failing was typical stuff. At least he didn’t grope for sex with men in airport restrooms. If you have to cheat, Americans can be more forgiving if she is a hot babe, and that seems to be the case with Reille Hunter.

I guess what amazes me the most is how effectively Edwards mesmerized us in spite of his egregious sin. His wife was fully aware of his moral lapse, and he ran with her apparent blessing. I remember seeing a news report in 2006 or so when this affair was taking place. It showed him and Elizabeth eating at a McDonalds where they had their first date. They made a habit of doing it on their wedding anniversary. It was just so cute and seemed so heartfelt. He seemed so dopily devoted to Elizabeth. Yet, he was stepping out on her.

In any event, I saw Edward as one of the slickest of the slick. He was too slick, which made me naturally suspicious of his genuineness. Given that many of the positions he espoused running for president in 2004 were discarded for the 2008 campaign, my suspicion was probably somewhat grounded. His slickness was the principle reason I avoided endorsing his candidacy and remain a bit leery about Obama’s. I sensed that something was not quite right. My unease has unfortunately now been validated.

I expect his rehabilitation will be complete by 2012, providing there is an opening in the Democratic race, and if not by 2016 for sure. I bet he will still look plenty handsome. I do not know what it will take for him to remake his reputation, but I am confident that Edwards will find a way to make us believe that he has been reborn.

What’s a horny politician to do?

Ack! Another politician is caught with his pants down! Just what we needed: a little jolt of scandalous cappuccino to wake us up. After all, the presidential campaign has gotten a bit boring of late. Even political junkies like me are beginning to nod off. What we needed was a distraction. Fortunately, New York Governor Elliot Spitzer provided just what we needed. We learned recently that on Valentines Day of all days he hoofed it down to the Mayflower Hotel in Washington D.C. and had an extremely expensive sexual experience with a very high priced 25-year-old prostitute with the doubtlessly assumed name of Kristen.

Sexual tourists of the nation’s capital will now have to add room 871 of the Mayflower Hotel to their list of destinations. It is about equidistant anyhow from the Tidal Basin (where stripper Fanne Fox and Arkansas Congressman Wilbur Mills were found drinking and driving in 1974) and the Capitol steps (where Rita Jenrette and Congressman husband reputedly made whoopee back in the 1980s). The Mayflower Hotel is also not that far from the Vista Hotel, where back in 1990 former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, married at the time, was famously caught smoking crack cocaine while his “long time female friend” observed. Doubtless, if D.C. hotel rooms could talk, they would be deafening.

I had no inkling that Elliot Spitzer was dealing with a few personal demons. However, I am not surprised. Someone as popular and successful as Spitzer probably deserved a comeuppance of some sort. This man after all was such a phenomenal Attorney General of New York State that to many Americans he was a household name. Unlike some recent U.S. Attorney Generals, he was obsessed with ensuring that the law was vigorously enforced, especially against the powerful. He took on price fixers, securities firms, insurance companies, the record companies and even police corruption in the town of Watkill in upstate New York. If he appeared on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, he need not worry about the thunderous applause, just a chorus of boos. No wonder he was elected governor with almost 70% of the vote.

His record as governor thus far has been a disappointment. With these scandalous revelations, it is an open question whether he will remain in office. Still, Bill Clinton had a rocky start as president too. He eventually won a second term. In spite of his own moral failings, he retired with near record high approval ratings. Perhaps Spitzer’s hesitancy to leave office is that he hopes that some of Bill’s luck will rub off on him. Republicans in Albany who want to impeach him might want to review the political implications of Bill Clinton’s impeachment first. Most Americans feel that moral failings while in office that are not illegal are politically excusable. Thus far, Spitzer has not been charged with any crime.

Why did Spitzer do it? I cannot read his mind but as a man a few years older than he is, I think that I have a good idea. I believe that he did it because like many married men he was not quite satisfied with what he was getting at home. Obviously, I have no idea what his sex life is like. His wife is quite attractive. I think in Spitzer’s mind, once you have made the dubious decision to step out on your wife, having sex with a prostitute seemed the lesser of many evils.

Ironically, if Spitzer were a Shi’ite Muslim in Iraq, he could come to an agreement with a local woman to be his wife for a day, get his rocks off and the clerics would bless it. Alas, he lives in America where unless you are polyamorous or have an open marriage, such options are closed to married people. Having sex with a prostitute can have some advantages. First, you cannot be accused of having an emotional affair. Some women will overlook a sexual affair but will string you up by your heels for having an emotional one. If, like Elliot Spitzer, you spend $4300 for an encounter with a down payment on a second one, you can be accused of being a cheater and wasting a lot of money, but you can at least escape the emotional affair rap.

The sad reality is that if you are a horny married politician your options are very limited. You could come on to that buxom secretary or filing clerk but such dalliances usually turn into steamy emotional affairs that go toxic and then public. That will not do for an ambitious politician, particularly one that looked like presidential material in 2012 or 2016. Besides, you have an image to maintain in the workplace so showing this side of yourself is very risky. You can have an affair with your right hand but that feels like second-class sex. A high-class hooker may cost a ton of money, but they tend to be discreet. That is in part how they command such extraordinary fees.

I hope Elliot Spitzer at least had a trusted partner in crime. I hope he was not dialing for escort services on his cell phone or finding them on Craigslist. I hope he had a way of funneling the money through a third party. Even so, there are risks in these contractual affairs and for a change, he got stung.

I will probably draw the wrath of wives everywhere (and many husbands too) by wishing New Yorkers would cut him a little slack. I felt sorry for Hillary Clinton when her husband’s tawdry oral affair with Monica Lewinski made the light of day a decade ago. At the same time, I did not feel that it diminished Clinton’s competency as president. Like most Americans, I saw his impeachment as a manufactured hullabaloo. If Spitzer ends his political career over this scandal, New Yorkers and Americans will probably be the poorer. His hypocrisy is evident, but we are all hypocrites, just generally in different matters and in different degrees. All of us make mistakes. I think this is a forgivable political mistake. His wife will have to figure out whether it is a forgivable marital mistake.

As I once outlined, there are many reasons for infidelity. This transgression has the hallmark of being one of the more forgivable transgressions. It appears that Spitzer had powerful sexual needs that his wife would either not accommodate or he was too embarrassed to express. I remain skeptical that either sex is naturally inclined toward monogamy. Wives who expect monogamy from their husbands had best recognize that they are fighting Mother Nature. They can reduce the odds by exceeding expectations in the bedroom. If you are a once a week type and he is a once a day type, you might want to find a way to be a twice a week type. If you refuse to do X, Y and Z because you think they are kinky you might want to do your best to do X, Y and Z at least occasionally. Otherwise, particularly if he has a very high sex drive, he may go find X, Y and Z somewhere else. Sexual kinks can have this sort of power and if press reports are correct Spitzer had a few.

As for politicians and sex, while it seems that they go together like bread and butter, I am willing to bet they are no more inclined toward infidelity than the rest of us. Sexual sins seem to be non-discriminatory. If infidelity made people deathly ill, you could not get a room in a hospital due to the shortage of hospital beds. Men like Spitzer who avail themselves of a call girl are bucking the odds. The truth is that while prominent men caught with their pants down make the papers regularly, for a man to cheat, he generally needs a woman. Since most men avoid prostitutes, roughly as many women are having lapsed periods of virtue as men.

Spitzer deserves a political slap on the wrist, perhaps a censure by the State Assembly, and then, like with the Larry Craig scandal, everyone should move on. This is a matter between the Mr. and Mrs. Spitzer. Politicians who actually work for the benefit of the people they serve are rare enough creatures. Spitzer was one of these public servants. There is no point in making them an endangered species for these truly minor kafuffles.

Infidelity: It’s Not So Simple

Prurient Americans (which, frankly are most of us) are waiting breathlessly for the release of Bill Clinton’s tell all book, My Life. Rest assured most of us will not start at Chapter One. Instead we will skip ahead to the part of the story where Monica Lewinski shows up. As you might expect many of the key details (from Clinton’s perspective) have already been disclosed. We learn that once Bill confessed his sins to Hillary he was in the doghouse. Apparently the First Lady can make the President of the United States spend two months sleeping on the couch. We learn that the whole family did counseling. Because we’ve seen snippets of Clinton’s interview with Dan Rather (scheduled to appear on 60 Minutes on Sunday) we learn that Bill dropped his pants for Monica “just because I could.”

It is doubtful that the book would sell quite as well if Clinton had kept his relationship with Ms. Lewinski wholly platonic. It is ironic that his human failing will cause sales of the book to climb into the stratosphere. For all the legal woes and bills inflicted upon him by Ken Starr and the vast right wing conspiracy during his years in office he may end up laughing all the way to the bank.

Clinton’s father died before he was born. He watched his stepfather repeatedly assault his mother. He learned very early to compartmentalize his feelings. He was hardly surrounded by role models during his upbringing. So in retrospect if he had a predisposition toward secrecy and trailer park trash it is perhaps not too surprising. It didn’t help that he was a fairly attractive guy, a terrific public speaker and a born extrovert. Add the title of President of the United States to his resume and if Ms. Lewinski was his only moral failing in office then I frankly give the guy some credit.

As a rule women other than my wife don’t fawn over me. But if I had a 21-year-old temptress willing to perform repeated acts of fellatio on me I doubt I would have held on very long. Most of us guys, when we are only with other guys and after a few beers will candidly admit we are more than capable of such indiscretions. Part of the male brain is wired toward infidelity. It takes repeated conscious effort to live up to our wives’ expectations. Fortunately for us we are rarely in positions of power. Most of us aren’t attractive like Bill Clinton. So his scenarios tend to be hypothetical for most married men. Because we are not alpha males it is easier for us to proclaim our undying commitment to our wives. It’s not that hard to be morally sanctimonious, at least in public, when others in the public spotlight succumb to temptation.

If there is an aspect to the whole sordid affair that really irks me though it is that we quickly resort to stereotypes. Bill was bad for straying. Hillary was good because she didn’t. Monica was a slut and would put out for any guy, not some star struck young lady with intimacy issues. That’s as deep as our thinking goes. Because Hillary held out and Bill didn’t, she is the one with the grievance. She was pure. Bill was Evil. End of public discussion.

This is balderdash. I’ll grant you that there are certain marriages where the wife can make a fairly convincing claim of innocence. We’ve all heard stories of husbands who repeatedly cheat on their wives. At the same time we repeatedly shake our heads wondering why the wives just don’t file for divorce or how they could be so clueless. I think in even the most egregious cases some fault lies on both parties. In the case of the chronically cheating husband the wife was probably more than a bit myopic going into the marriage in the first place.

I can cite the case of someone in my wife’s side of the family. He is roughly Bill Clinton’s age. At the time I first met him he was getting married for the second time. But by that time he had already fathered two children out of wedlock. His father repeatedly cheated on his mother. His father allegedly spent much of his adult life being verbally and physically abusive to them and wrapped up in an alcoholic haze. Wife Number Two was a woman who came from a family of some privilege and money. His wife didn’t learn about much of his sordid past until shortly before the marriage. Yet that did not seem to deter her from marrying him. I don’t know why she married him. Hopefully it was for love. But there were lots of alarm bells that should have gone off. There was one thing though: this in law is a really good-looking guy. We’re talking 9 on a 10 scale, at least. I can’t help but wonder if his looks overwhelmed her common sense. Anyhow, rest assured they have been divorced for some time. Eventually he strayed and hit the booze. She tried to patch things up, but it didn’t work out. He had mentally left the marriage years earlier. And now he is onto wife number three. Last I heard she was still a divorcee and not anxious to get remarried.

There is no way to know for sure the dynamics of the Clinton marriage. But I bet Hillary was more than a little star-struck by Bill. Certainly she knew Bill came from a dysfunctional family. She was likely attracted to him because he was handsome. But I bet part of the attraction was he gave the appearance that he could surmount his past. If so this was a naive assumption. She should have known better. The odds were that if she married Bill she would have many an episode of heartache. Warning flags were there and it appears she chose to ignore them.

Or maybe she figured she could change Bill. This is another one of those fatal mistakes often made by myopic women fixated on one particular guy. I’m guilty of it myself. I have learned the fallacy of this reasoning through the school of hard knocks. No one can ever change anyone. Personal change can only come from within.

Whatever the complex dynamic of the Bill and Hill relationship, Bill’s affair with Monica Lewinski was really a symptom of a larger dysfunctional marital relationship. Hillary was probably clueless. She shouldn’t have been clueless. If the relationship were at the deep enough intimacy level it most likely would not have happened. And if Hillary had reached that inner core of Bill Clinton’s being she would have known who he really was and perhaps never married him. For that she should shoulder some responsibility. I don’t know what kept her busy during the mid 1990s, but I have a feeling she should have spent much more private time with Bill. The work necessary to sustain a rich marriage gives the appearance of being postponed to revel in the thrills of power and prestige.

Hopefully as a result of this encounter their marriage now has that level of intimacy and connection it likely lacked. But somehow I am skeptical. Hillary is a senator and spends at least six days a week in Washington and away from her husband. It sounds like the pattern is repeating itself, except this time there is a role reversal. I hope there is no new Monica Lewinski in Bill Clinton’s future. He’s not quite the Alpha male he was now that he is out of power. But I wouldn’t be surprised if another one turned up in time.