It didn't start with Twitter — and it won't end with Weiner.
For centuries, the theme of sexual sins committed by the powerful has been scintillating source material for the arts. In poems and plays, in novels and films and TV series, artists have explored the fleshly failings of the high and mighty.
William Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra" (1623) to the CBS series "The Good Wife," writers have recorded the fallout when a powerful person — in the former, it's Marc Antony, "the triple pillar of the world transform'd/ Into a strumpet's fool," while in the latter, it's Peter Florrick (Christopher Noth), Cook County state's attorney, initially stripped of his position after repeated romps with a prostitute — risks everything to scratch a carnal itch.
So if you're slightly ashamed of following every twist and nuance in the ongoing saga of New York Congressman Anthony Weiner, who resigned Thursday afternoon in the wake of revelations about his frisky tweets and risque photos sent to a series of young women, cut yourself some slack.
And if you hate yourself for scarfing up every tidbit about the out-of-wedlock children of former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former Sen. John Edwards, or the extramarital follies of Sen. David Vitter and former Sen. John Ensign, and former Govs. Mark Sanford and Eliot Spitzer — and before that, of former President Bill Clinton — you can relax.
Even august authors such as John Milton and Nathaniel Hawthorne have been fascinated by the spectacle of influential people with so much to lose — exalted position, historical legacy — who nonetheless indulge in high-risk hanky-panky.
If it's good enough for Milton to muse upon in "Samson Agonistes" (1671) and Hawthorne to explicate in "The Scarlet Letter" (1850), then it's good enough for the rest of us to read about in Us Weekly.
At first glance, it might seem that the unsavory love lives of the powerful are too shopworn to make good plots, constituting a big, boring "duh": Leaders, after all, are people. And people, after all, like sex. Especially forbidden sex.
What's new to say in a play or a novel or a TV series about a king or a CEO or a congressman who puts it all on the line for a physical thrill?
Stay tuned. Because sex-based shenanigans among the ruling class continue to inspire art. Perhaps it is the disparity between appearance and reality that so intrigues. Or the timeless appeal of a lively reminder that no matter how accomplished an individual might be, no matter how brilliant and renowned, at bottom, we're all prey to our baser instincts.
"But see, now, how passion takes hold upon this man, and hurrieth him out of himself," thinks the sinister Roger Chillingworth in "The Scarlet Letter," as he contemplates the Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale. "He hath done a wild thing, ere now, this pious Master Dimmesdale, in the hot passion of his heart!"
That "wild thing," of course, is secretly fathering the child of Hester Prynne. His admiring flock thinks him worthy of their highest regard — "In their eyes, the very ground on which he trod was sanctified" — but Dimmesdale knows he's a liar and a fraud. The knowledge leaves him "gnawed and tortured by some black trouble of the soul."
Such self-flagellation is not the habit of Willie Stark, the folksy politician at the heart of Robert Penn Warren's 1946 novel "All the King's Men." Once he rises to the top of the heap, Stark — allegedly based on real-life politico Huey Long — bathes daily in a swamp of corruption, including casual infidelity. Seeking to undermine an enemy, Stark tells his aide not to bother making up scurrilous charges: "You don't ever have to frame anybody, because the truth is always sufficient."
Public power and private weakness, Stark knows, go together like silk bathrobes and expensive hotel suites reserved under fake names.
Warren's novel has twice been made into films, in 1949 and 2006. Other movies that explore the sex sins of politicians include "The Seduction of Joe Tynan" (1979), in which an idealistic lawmaker played by Alan Alda succumbs to the charms of a comely mistress played by Meryl Streep, and "Scandal" (1989), based on the real-life incident that rocked Great Britain in the early 1960s, when cabinet minister John Profumo (Ian McKellen) admitted his liaison with prostitute Christine Keeler (Joanne Whalley). In the 1962 film "Advise and Consent," a politician struggles to come to terms with the secret of his sexuality.
Weiner may consider himself a trendsetter with his titillating tweets, but even our earliest literature deals with the allure of sexual sin among the elite. Homer's "Odyssey" records the irresistible temptations of the flesh faced by Odysseus as he makes his decadelong trip home after the Trojan War. John Dryden considered the theme of the sexual enthrallment of the mighty resonant enough to rewrite "Antony and Cleopatra" in his play "All for Love Or, The World Well Lost" (1678).
Of the many frailties that doom politicians — love of money, glory or the good life — the one that has always challenged artists is sexual sin. It may be small consolation for Weiner, but long before he activated his Twitter account, classic authors such as Milton and Shakespeare looked into his soul.
They didn't know his name. But they had his number.