As Representative Patrick Kennedy, Democrat of Rhode Island was announcing that he would not seek reelection to Congress this year, and as the airwaves were buzzing with reports on the prodigious size of John Edwards’ manhood—rumors based on his alleged participation in a porn video that he supposedly made with Rielle Hunter—Virginia Woolf came to mind.
Woolf famously wrote in an essay: “On or about December 1910 human character changed… All human relations have shifted—those between masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children.” The occasion for Woolf’s theatrical declaration was, so one story goes, the writer Lytton Strachey running into Virginia and her sister Vanessa at a party, pointing to a stain on Vanessa’s dress and inquiring, “Semen?” Shortly afterward, Virginia noted in her diary: “With that one word, all barriers of reticence and reserve went down.”
We are now in the age of the political-as-personal. That is to say, we are now living at a time when the very vocation of being a politician is in danger.
Almost exactly 100 years later, no one is afraid of Virginia Woolf. When you use the word “reticent” nowadays, you mean that you just saw someone with whom you went to high school in a porn video on the Web and he wasn’t talking. But even in our own go-go moment, a Kennedy choosing not to run for reelection is the moral equivalent of Strachey’s remark in 1910. Human character has changed. Politics has changed.
The last time something like Woolf's revolution in human character occurred was in the 1960s. That was when the personal became the political. The formulation became a war cry for the feminists, who used it to mean that personal issues like domestic violence, abortion, and access to health care were just as political as questions of the national budget and foreign policy. The feminists and the radicals of the New Left believed that organized power was what shaped public attitudes toward personal questions. And politics was the place where the currents of power were directed this way or that.
But the unforeseen consequence of the “personal-is-the-political” was to politicize private life. Liberals called on technocrats to craft laws that would affect intimate aspects of existence. This created a backlash, with the right wing seeing Affirmative Action and legalized abortion as initiatives that brought government deeper into our lives—while nevertheless demanding their own legislative crackdowns on sexual conduct, sexual preference, and "obscene" books and song lyrics.
Things have now come full circle. It’s ironic that the personal-is-the-political has now become the war cry of the Tea Partiers when they shift into the first-person to attack Obama's efforts to reform health care ("I don't want a bureaucrat standing between me and my doctor"). The question of health care has become for the Tea Partiers what the question of a battered woman’s rights was for the feminists in the 1960s.
The two positions might still be antithetical to each other—feminists want government to protect the individual; Tea Partiers want government to leave the individual alone—but like the feminists of yore, Tea Party culture is driven by personal testimony and an intimate style. The Tea Partiers adore Sarah Palin because she reduces political questions to a kitchen-table wisecrack or a bedroom taunt. She insists on her domestic experience as the foundation for her politics in the same way that Betty Friedan did. Yet unlike the New Left radicals, the Tea Partiers are not politicizing personal life—they do not want politics to help them. Rather, they are personalizing political life—they want private life to drive out politics. In that sense, they are on the cutting edge of a new political reality. We are now in the age of the political-as-personal. That is to say, we are now living at a time when the very vocation of being a politician is in danger.
When politics devolves into the personal, a politician’s personal life becomes a time bomb ticking over his political career. Patrick Kennedy might not have given a reason for why he decided not to run again, and most obviously he was unsettled by his disappointing poll numbers among his constituents and by the threat of a strong challenge from a Scott Brown-like opponent. But it’s fair to assume that his well-documented struggles with addiction were an important consideration, despite the fact that they never stood in the way of his political career before. In the old days, a Kennedy brushing aside a scandal was almost the condition for a Kennedy victory. Not anymore. The very fact of an inevitably imperfect private life forecloses the possibility of a successful public one. After John Edwards, the deluge.
In the age of the political-as-personal, fewer and fewer politicians even have the strength to run for public office. People close to Patrick Kennedy say that the determining factor in his decision not to run was the death last year of his father, Ted Kennedy. He no longer had the heart for a fight. A Kennedy no longer had the heart for a political fight! Kennedys used to die in office, tragically or otherwise; or they died tragically before they could run for office. But Patrick's renunciation is a sea change. Perhaps as politics disintegrates into scrutiny of personal idiosyncracies—as more and more voters customize their politics into highly personal micro-preferences that are outside party affiliation or ideology—more and more politicians will, like he did, flee politics on account of personal considerations that once would not have halted their ambition.
The personal realm is increasingly becoming the last refuge of the besieged politician. As Virginia Woolf wrote in that same essay: “When human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature.” In other words, when you have a public discussion of the size of Edwards’ organ, something’s gotta give. Or as Patrick Kennedy put it in his farewell address: “My life is taking a new direction.” Pursued by the exploitable fact of their private lives, the entire political class may well soon follow him back into private life.
Lee Siegel is The Daily Beast's senior columnist. He publishes widely on culture and politics and is the author of three books: Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; and, most recently, Against the Machine: How the Web Is Reshaping Culture And Commerce—And Why It Matters. In 2002, he received a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.