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From Divorce to Blackface: A Short History of Political Taboos

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He is the author of several works of political history including, most recently, Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency. Taboos on divorce and homosexuality in the 1950s gave way by the 1980s to moral policing over drug use, infidelity and draft-dodging, and today—as the political turmoil in Virginia and elsewhere is showing—a new set of inviolable behaviors is emerging, from sexual harassment to wearing blackface years ago to other forms of racial offense. And the speed with which they’ve become sacrosanct suggests that they’re sure to generate many more scandals in the months and years ahead.To see how quickly political morality can change, recall that within the lifetimes of many living Americans, great shame attached simply to getting divorced. Although Clinton’s pursuers claimed to be impeaching him for lying, and not adultery per se, most people saw the truth in Arkansas Senator Dale Bumpers’ quip that “when you hear somebody say, ‘This is not about sex,’ it’s about sex.” A decade later, many Republicans would come around to the same view, after the New York Times ran a thinly sourced article insinuating that John McCain, then the likely Republican presidential nominee, was sleeping with a 40-year-old lobbyist. That was the point.” He even went so far in his much-praised memoir to admit to having used not just “pot” and “booze” but even “a little blow when you could afford it.” Efforts by Hillary Clinton allies like BET founder Jim Johnson to politically exploit Obama’s drug use backfired. Today, the act of having worn blackface as young men decades ago is threatening the political livelihoods of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring—and similar offenses are now dogging other politicians too. Overt racial insults have been politically damaging for a long time, from Jeff Sessions repeatedly calling a black attorney “boy,” to George Allen calling an Indian-American at a campaign rally “macaca.” But other forms of racism, like blackface, were, in the more racially benighted climate of those not-too-distant times, shamefully tolerated in many quarters. Even Elizabeth Warren’s struggle to put her account of having Native American ancestry behind her reflects our rapidly evolving standards of political morality.

As said here by John F. Harris