Honchos and Hubris: Four Reasons Why Powerful Men Will Cheat — and Risk it All

| November 14, 2012

The most shocking aspect of General David Petraeus’s affair, and subsequent resignation, was that his friends and colleagues actually called it “shocking.”

But any onlooker at the periphery of the scandal who has ever read a history book, watched a news program, seen a movie, read a magazine, or — let’s say, breathed — was not remotely surprised.

News of powerful men delving in dalliances and long-term extramarital strayings has become commonplace. While infidelities are certainly not novel, indiscretions in the dark now see the light of day instantaneously throughout multiple forms of media. With enough hubris, however, many politicos still feel that they won’t get caught. How else could one explain Congressman Anthony Weiner’s surprised reaction that his pseudo infidelities were exposed after he recklessly selfie’d himself shirtless to several women?

Politicos and military leaders have long had protracted affairs throughout U.S. history (to say nothing of farcical French political liaisons).

Before we discuss why men do this, let’s have a look at the Top 10 American Political Sex Scandals.

1.   President Harding with Carrie Phillips and Nan Britton, as well as unknown K Street prostitutes in the Oval Office after drunken poker games during Prohibition.
2.   President Franklin Roosevelt with Missy LeHand and later with Lucy Mercer in whose arms he died in Warm Springs, Georgia.
3.   President Eisenhower with Kay Summersby
4.   President Kennedy with numerous women – but most famously with Marilyn Monroe.
5.   President Lyndon Johnson shared his “Jumbo,” as he called it, with many women, among them: Alice Glass and Madeline Brown.
6.   President Clinton defined the word “is” with “that woman,” Monica Lewinsky.
7.   Former Democratic Vice Presidential candidate John Edwards fathered a child with crazy-eyed Rielle Hunter while his wife was dying of cancer.
8    South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford said he went on an Appalachian retreat when he was actually porking his Porteña “soul mate” down Argentine way.
9.   Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich had an affair with then-intern (now wife) Callista while his wife was dying of cancer. During this time, Gingrich lead the charge for Clinton’s impeachment during the Lewinsky scandal.
10.   Governor Schwarzenegger had a decades-long love affair with his handsome housekeeper, Mildred, with whom he fathered a love child. Both Mildred and his wife Maria were pregnant by Schwarzenegger and living under the same roof.

In  Psychological Science, psychology professor Joris Lammers from Tilburg University in the Netherlands reported that, “The likelihood [of a person’s infidelity] increases the more powerful that someone is.”

But what makes these powerful men risk it all for want of a woman? It was generally assumed that men cheated for a more attractive catch (Lucy Mercer versus Eleanor) or a more sensual model (Marilyn Monroe versus Jackie) or perhaps a more youthful type (Monica Lewinsky versus Hillary) and there is a great deal of truth in that. But then Mildred happened.

Why did Petraeus go against his own moral code? Why do so many top politicos top it out with trollops and fawning fans? And how in God’s name did Mildred happen? There are four reasons:

According to a study by University of Southern California psychology professor Mara Mather and PhD student Nichole R. Lighthall, men are more likely than women to take greater risks when placed in stressful situations. Specifically, breaking the rules and engaging in vices while under stress increases dopamine levels thereby making temptations more desirable. Mather believes this indicates “there is some kind of amplification in these reward processes that makes reward substances feel even more rewarding,”

Alpha males are inherent risk takers; factor in the stress of a demanding position with overwhelming anxiety levels and the alpha male will frequently, if the opportunity presents itself, indulge in sexually risky behavior. The increased need for dopamine via a sexual release temporarily lifts the fog of anxiety and clears the mind.

Everyone enjoys positive reinforcement, but powerful men need adulation and their fans are all too willing to extravagantly laud them.

Months before the Petraeus scandal even broke, readers on Amazon.com wrote that Paula Broadwell’s All In: The Education of General David Petraeus was little more than “hero worship” and “cheerleading” and that the author was simply “a fan.”

Biological cravings further fueled by stress and combined with entitlement justification are a recipe for an affair. It’s the same with food and other stimulants. We want that piece of chocolate cake though we know we shouldn’t cheat on our diet. And even though we know it’s bad for us, we take just one little bite — after all, we’ve worked hard and we deserve it. And before you know it, the cake is gone and there’s icing all over your gobhole.

It’s as simple as that: Men in high positions are surrounded by willing women.

Continuing with the cake analogy, when the aforementioned ingredients for cheating combine, the offering is often an overwhelming temptation. It’s easy to quicken your step past the bakery, but when even a less-than-tasty-looking cake is placed on your desk — you’ll still have a bite because even though you don’t like this particular cake, it’s still cake. And that is precisely how you bake a Mildred Cake.


If you have an affair, you will be found out. Let this be your rule of thumb: If the head of the Central Intelligence Agency, one of the most secretive organizations in the world, couldn’t keep his affair silent; no one can.

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