Fairly or not, sex scandals in politics have acquired a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon ring. The French boast of taking a more sophisticated view of the private lives of public men—that is to say, those lives are shielded from public scrutiny. Germans smack their lips when their betters stray but do not let this behavior get in the way of politics. (The British smack their lips too, even as they bring their culprits down.) Many Asian strongmen have positively reveled in being cocks of the walk. When a blackmailer once threatened President Sukarno with photographs of the Indonesian leader striking up an intimate acquaintance with several Parisian hookers, Sukarno told him to make sure every Indonesian saw them at once. It could only enhance his reputation. To be sure, a Japanese prime minister was once forced to resign when his girlfriend, a minor geisha, made trouble, but that was because he wasn’t paying her enough money to remain discreet, and not because extramarital sex was considered a bad thing in itself.
All this is by way of registering my surprise about the presence of sex in the Taiwanese mayoral elections at the beginning of December. I arrived in Taiwan from Washington with the hot lips of Starr and Lewinsky still freshly imprinted on my mind. And one of the first things I read in the papers was that the mayoral candidate for the opposition Democratic Progressive Party in the southern city of Kaohsiung had accused his opponent, the incumbent mayor, of lying about having had an extramarital affair. To prove his case, a tape was distributed of a telephone conversation between the said mayor and his girlfriend. The mayor, a member of the ruling Kuomintang Party, was heard whispering “I love you.” But the mayor denied that he had ever spoken these words. The tape, so he wished us to believe, was a fake.
Now, why should this have become an issue? Sure enough, opponents of the allegedly amorous mayor used the same arguments as enemies of President Clinton: it wasn’t the sex, it was the lying. He was insincere. If he lied about one thing, how could he be trusted about anything else, and so forth. But these arguments had a hollow ring. The fact is that a man’s alleged sexual infidelity was used to denigrate his character.
The mayor, named Wu Dun-yi, then decided to strike back with even heavier guns. The DPP candidate, a lawyer by the name of Frank Hsieh, had once taken on the case of a kidnapper who had murdered the daughter of a well-known show business figure. In the middle of the mayoral campaign, the girl’s mother, who happens to be close to the KMT, decided to release a videotape, which was consequently distributed all over Kaohsiung, in which she declared, in tearful anger, that a man who defends a vicious killer must be a very bad man himself. The hope was that the citizens of Kaohsiung would have only …