Sex, Politics, and the Porn Star DA

This May 23, 2012 photo shows Cortland County District Attorney Mark Suben in Cortland County, N.Y. Suben on Friday, Nov. 16,
This May 23, 2012 photo shows Cortland County District Attorney Mark Suben in Cortland County, N.Y. Suben on Friday, Nov. 16, 2012 admitted that he acted in pornographic movies in the 1970s then lied when questioned about it during his second campaign. (AP Photo/The Cortland Standard, Bob Ellis) MANDATORY CREDIT

From Pericles to Petraeus, public figures have run afoul of sex. The only thing really surprising about the public reaction to the burgeoning sex scandal among top military leaders is the fact that people are surprised.

The immediate and legitimate concern about l'aiffaire Petraeus is whether any secret information has been compromised. The use of sex to obtain information is hardly limited to James Bond movies; the World War II adage that "loose lips sink ships" may have had multiple meanings.

More instructive, if vexing, is the case of the recently reelected district attorney in my home county of Cortland. On November 16 -- days after winning reelection to a second term -- DA Mark Suben held a press conference to announce that, in the 1970s, he had appeared in several pornographic films, showing him engaging in a variety of explicit sex acts. He explained his actions as the "bad judgment" of a young man and apologized both for his actions, and for lying to reporters when asked about the allegations in the days leading up to his election. His bombshell admission came as the result of a lengthy YouTube clip, posted after election day, which presented evidence of his past, and presumably posted by political opponents who had also tipped off reporters. The post includes clips from some of his dozen films, including Deep Throat Part II and The Love Witch, where he used the name Gus Thomas. (Suben's acting had not been limited to skin flicks, but included off-Broadway work, television commercials, and soap operas.) Democrat Suben noted that all this happened before he attended law school, and concluded his press conference by stating emphatically that he had no intention of resigning.

One can readily imagine how this salacious story has reverberated in our small, upstate New York county. But within hours of Suben's press conference, the story was splashed across an array of national, and even international, outlets. Why, and what does this portend for Mr. Suben and our politics?

The answer to the first is simple: people are fascinated by -- if also repelled by -- the private lives of public people, and especially when sex is involved. Given that Suben's triple-X film career occurred decades ago, was legal, and predated his legal education and practice, the public is left with a breach of manners and morality, but not of law.

This leaves two other important questions: would Suben's past somehow interfere with his ability to function as a district attorney, including prosecution of sex-related cases; and what about lying to reporters (and therefore to the public) about his past? Aside from those who cannot abide a DA who once took off his clothes and had sex in front of a camera, this is the more troublesome question.

As to the first, Suben's first term lends no support to any notion that he would somehow fail to prosecute sex-related criminal offenses. And it is important to remember that he simply had sex -- a legal, natural, and ubiquitous activity. That he did so in front of a camera is a matter of performance (even if distasteful), not perversion. The lying problem is more significant. Yet it is no surprise that Suben did what most do: lie about an embarrassing and indiscreet past. That does not make it right, but unlike Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Clinton's chief political mistake was lying under oath about his extramarital activities, which is what precipitated the effort to impeach him. Suben's lie was not a legal, but a political (and arguably moral) problem -- considerations magnified for a public official.

Will county citizens decide that his past, and cover-up of it, negates his legitimacy as an elected official and prosecutor, or will he be judged by his record and legal credentials, which are indeed considerable, including prosecutorial work in the Bronx and Onondaga County DA's offices. A similar paradox arose during Clinton's sex scandal and subsequent impeachment trial in 1998-99. While the public decried Clinton's extramarital affair, most also continued to support him throughout his impeachment, because they felt that his private behavior bore no relationship to his ability to carry out his duties as president. And during the recent presidential campaign, Clinton's approval rating registered 69 percent -- higher than any other Democrat, including Obama, Biden, and the First Lady.

In the case of Mr. Suben, the people of Cortland County will face similar calculations in the ever-messy business of politics.