Politico

Opinion | Why Nobody Believed Madison Cawthorn — and Nobody Would Have Cared if It Was True


Madison Cawthorn — the 26-year-old peacocking, loopy-right, Republican member of Congress from North Carolina — has bestowed upon the Washington press corps a story so fulsome that it has provided many of them a needed break from covering the war in Ukraine, avalanching inflation, the next wrinkle in Covid, Joe Biden’s latest gaffe and the confirmation of Ketanji Brown Jackson. In a podcast released last week, Cawthorn claimed that the smutty Netflix series House of Cards, which featured murder, drugs, polyamory, erotic asphyxiation, more murder, a threesome, dog murder and kinky sex, was “closer to a documentary” than a fictional show.

Ears wiggled in Washington newsrooms as first-termer Cawthorn elaborated on his assertion, claiming to have collected an invitation to an orgy and insisting that he had witnessed anti-drug members of Congress doing cocaine. But few reporters put much faith in Cawthorn’s sordid testimonial — not because nobody in D.C. gets murdered or joins threesomes or kills dogs or does drugs. Like other Americans, Washingtonians attend to life’s basic vices with real enthusiasm. We’re even also known to drink and swear. But few reporters were willing to bite on Cawthorn’s allegation account because 1) it came with no specifics; 2) he didn’t share the orgy location (could the password be Fidelio?); 3) his comments were made offhandedly to a minor podcast instead of in a press conference or a serious statement of allegations; and 4) mostly because he’s Madison Cawthorn, an exhibitionist capable of blotting out the entire Kardashian family even when he doesn’t turn up the wattage. (Perhaps the big surprise is that Cawthorn didn’t accuse anybody of pedophilia, an article of faith among his QAnon acquaintances and universally disdained. But give him time.)


Cawthorn’s low reliability as a Washington narrator and commentator has been amply documented by his home-state newspaper, the Charlotte Observer. The paper’s editorial board has repeatedly lamented the congressman’s mendacious ways. He lies, the board has found. He helped incite the Jan. 6 riot. He appeared to promise “bloodshed” if election “fraud” (not yet proved) continued. He calls the Capitol rioters “political prisoners.” He formally called for the invocation of the 25th Amendment against President Joe Biden. In one speech, he was captured on video calling Ukraine “incredibly evil” and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy a “thug.” Wherever he goes, Cawthorn makes a hash of words and common sense. Why put any stock in his sex exposé if we don’t believe his blatherings about election fraud?

Even House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has come to a similar finding. On Thursday, the Washington Post quoted him saying that after a meeting with Cawthorn, he had determined that the stories were made up. “There’s no evidence to this,” McCarthy said, adding that Cawthorn’s story was not consistent. He “changes what he tells.”

There was a time that Cawthorn’s comments might have prompted a news story about a high-class bordello run out of a Dupont Circle townhouse or a piece about a drug bust in a Senate office cafeteria. But that time peaked around 1951, when Washington Confidential“,”link”:{“target”:”NEW”,”attributes”:[],”url”:”https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/63469″,”_id”:”0000017f-e19c-dc1f-a9ff-e39d0bd10011″,”_type”:”33ac701a-72c1-316a-a3a5-13918cf384df”},”_id”:”0000017f-e19c-dc1f-a9ff-e39d0bd10012″,”_type”:”02ec1f82-5e56-3b8c-af6e-6fc7c8772266″}”>Washington Confidential, Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer’s seamy exposé of sex, sin and violence on the capital’s crime-clotted streets, was a bestseller, not today when it’s ridiculed as being a Reefer Madness-esque work of wacky sensationalism. The young Ben Bradlee famously panned the book in 1951 in a Washington Post review with a headline that read, “Even Addresses Are Wrong: Capital the Victim of Sloppy Reporting.” Wrote Bradlee: “you can find out as much with a good 35-cent guide to Washington and a talkative taxi driver.”

Cawthorn might have gotten better marks from the press and the Charlotte Observer if he had taken the historical tack and explained that illicit sex and substance abuse have always been on the menu in Washington. What he missed is sometimes Washington thinks sex and substances are important and take notice and sometimes it doesn’t.

According to historian John H. Summer, at the beginning of the Republic and then continuing for more than a century, political combatants considered the moral rectitude of the opposition as a worthy subject for debate. Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and others were routinely accused of indulging in extramarital adventures. In those days, for civic and religious reasons, virtue was considered a prerequisite for leadership. But in the 1920s, modernity allowed politicians a pinch of debauchery in their personal histories if they kept it on the down-low. Warren G. Harding, Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower appear to have been the earliest beneficiaries of our culture’s don’t ask, don’t tell standards.

It wasn’t until the post-Kennedy era — when we learned he had treated the White House as his personal henhouse — that a lack of sexual virtue became politically disqualifying and Page One news once again. Poor Gary Hart! But then came Bill Clinton, who had at least one affair (and probably many more), lied about it, got caught lying, was impeached, and then saw his approval ratings rise and crest like a wave at Honolua Bay. We care so little about peccadillos nowadays since sexual expression has been decriminalized. The press once considered it scandalous when a lawmaker’s homosexuality was revealed. Now, thanks to the press corps’ late-arriving enlightenment, reporters treat such events as human interest stories.

In 2016, Donald Trump became the prime beneficiary of the public’s lackadaisical attitudes about sex after his caddish and vulgar ways were revealed anew by old Access Hollywood tapes. That adoration still holds, even among the GOP’s most socially conservative activists, proving how little Americans care about the sex lives of politicians. There are exceptions to this new rule. Katie Hill got hounded out of office after nude pictures of her were posted on the web, with some allies arguing she was also treated unfairly because of her bisexuality. But the public’s interest might have fallen so low that the inevitable People magazine cover story about a member of Congress, his spouse and his chief of staff titled “Now We Are Three” will be greeted with a shrug.

Societal toleration has deposited the Washington sex scandal, made famous by Wilbur Mills, Wayne Hays, Bob Barr, Henry Hyde, Robert Livingston, et al., into the doldrums. We sort of care about who is boinking whom on the Hill but we also can’t be bothered. That current attitude is subject to change. The puritans might still stage a revival. But for now, don’t expect Madison Cawthorn’s alleged eyewitness report — or his House of Cards fan-fiction, as McCarthy has determined — about orgies and lines of cocaine to restore sexual virtue to its place of honor.

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Why isn’t Cawthorn talking about the fragrance of marijuana, which is stronger than cherry blossoms this week? Send vice advice to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com“,”link”:{“target”:”NEW”,”attributes”:[],”url”:”mailto:shafer.politico@gmail.com”,”_id”:”0000017f-e19c-dc1f-a9ff-e39d0bd20006″,”_type”:”33ac701a-72c1-316a-a3a5-13918cf384df”},”_id”:”0000017f-e19c-dc1f-a9ff-e39d0bd20007″,”_type”:”02ec1f82-5e56-3b8c-af6e-6fc7c8772266″}”>Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts“,”link”:{“target”:”NEW”,”attributes”:[],”url”:”http://politico.us2.list-manage.com/subscribe?u=26f1798168150c8a8ed512264&id=151813914f”,”_id”:”0000017f-e19c-dc1f-a9ff-e39d0bd20008″,”_type”:”33ac701a-72c1-316a-a3a5-13918cf384df”},”_id”:”0000017f-e19c-dc1f-a9ff-e39d0bd20009″,”_type”:”02ec1f82-5e56-3b8c-af6e-6fc7c8772266″}”>email alerts remain chaste. My Twitter“,”link”:{“target”:”NEW”,”attributes”:[],”url”:”https://twitter.com/jackshafer”,”_id”:”0000017f-e19c-dc1f-a9ff-e39d0bd2000a”,”_type”:”33ac701a-72c1-316a-a3a5-13918cf384df”},”_id”:”0000017f-e19c-dc1f-a9ff-e39d0bd2000b”,”_type”:”02ec1f82-5e56-3b8c-af6e-6fc7c8772266″}”>Twitter feed can’t remember the last time it observed cocaine in the wild, but it’s only 14 years old. Don’t trust my RSS“,”link”:{“target”:”NEW”,”attributes”:[],”url”:”https://t.co/tfg9KzdCxq”,”_id”:”0000017f-e19c-dc1f-a9ff-e39d0bd2000c”,”_type”:”33ac701a-72c1-316a-a3a5-13918cf384df”},”_id”:”0000017f-e19c-dc1f-a9ff-e39d0bd2000d”,”_type”:”02ec1f82-5e56-3b8c-af6e-6fc7c8772266″}”>RSS feed in your bathroom if you’re stocking oxy.

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