Does Shacking Up Kill Happily Ever After?

The Beauty Shop ladies discuss the prostitution scandal surrounding the Secret Service, and recent studies on "cohabitation" and whether living together before marriage is the surest way to kill "happily ever after." Host Michel Martin checks in with columnist Mary Kate Cary, PJ Media's Bridget Johnson, and bloggers Viviana Hurtado and Danielle Belton.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, the latest installment of our poetry series, Muses and Metaphor, will be in just a few minutes.

But, first, it's time for the Beauty Shop. That's where we get a fresh cut on the week's news with a panel of women writers and journalists. Today, we want to talk about that prostitution scandal surrounding the Secret Service. We also want to ask our journalists about studies on cohabitation and whether living together before marriage ends in happily ever after - or not.

Sitting in their chairs for a new do this week are Viviana Hurtado, blogger-in-chief of the website, The Wise Latina Club. She's with us from New York. Here in Washington, D.C., we have Mary Kate Cary, former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. She's also a columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report. Danielle Belton is author of the pop culture and politics blog, The Black Snob. And Bridget Johnson is with us for the first time, Washington, D.C. editor for PJ Media. That's a conservative libertarian commentary and news website.

Welcome to all of you. Thanks for joining us.

VIVIANA HURTADO: Thanks for having us, Michel.

DANIELLE BELTON: Great to be here.

BRIDGET JOHNSON: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Let's talk about - you know, it wasn't planned this way, clearly, but the big news out of President Obama's trip to Columbia for the Summit of the Americas did not have anything to do with official foreign relations. An internal investigation by the U.S. Secret Service is examining whether about 20 agents and military personnel brought prostitutes to their hotel rooms - or sex workers, I guess, is the term that people use these days.

The agents in question were part of the advance team to prepare for President Obama's trip to Columbia. Several have already had their security clearances revoked and this matter is under investigation. It seems, actually, to be kind of widening.

Mary Kate, you worked in the White House with the first President George H.W.

MARY KATE CARY: Right.

MARTIN: As did I, as a journalist, which I covered.

CARY: That's right. That's right.

MARTIN: And I confess that I was shocked.

CARY: Yeah.

MARTIN: Were you?

CARY: I was shocked. The agents that I knew back then - and still know quite a few - are top-notch professionals and I think this was a real embarrassment to the rest of the hardworking team that would never do something like this.

When I was there, the political appointees like me - but it went for everybody on the White House staff - we were told in no uncertain terms that there is a higher standard, that anything you do as an employee of the White House is going to be judged differently from everybody else, and that you should assume anything you do is going to end up on the front page of The Washington Post. And I think these guys kind of forgot about that and really engaged in high-risk behavior in terms of security.

MARTIN: I confess that, as a journalist, I felt that - I was not traveling overseas. I not only represented my news organization, but my country, as well.

CARY: Sure, sure.

MARTIN: I mean, when people - when you're overseas, people will say, where are you from? They don't mean The Washington Post or NPR. They mean the U.S., you know, Germany, wherever they mean.

Anyway, here's Neal Conan, host of NPR's TALK OF THE NATION. He's talked with Jeffrey Robinson yesterday. He's the coauthor of kind of a memoir about the Secret Service. It's called "Standing Next to History: An Agent's Life Inside the Secret Service." This is what he said about this:

JEFFREY ROBINSON: These men were not responsible for themselves and they deserve what they're getting. They're all probably looking for work as of right now. They certainly will never rise higher in the Secret Service. But I don't honestly thing that they, at any time, exposed the president to any sort of real danger. I think it was simply boys being boys and I'm afraid boys will be boys. I know because I was one.

MARTIN: You know, Bridget Johnson, you wrote about this in a piece for PJ Media and you talked about - that this really speaks to a deeper cultural problem. What did you mean by that?

JOHNSON: Well, there are two main issues here. And, first of all, you know, when you have this many guys who are not ratting each other out and the only way that they get discovered is by one guy being cheap and not paying, is that you wonder where did this feeling of invincibility come from? How long have they been doing this? What other agencies might be doing this, as well? They roped in the military guys with no problem in this.

And then the other huge area of concern is how - what a damaging image this projects to our enemies of our weaknesses in security. These guys who were setting up security for the president - they were snipers, they were explosives experts. They were working at the perimeter making sure that everything was going to be safe for Obama. And we're talking about a country where, just in the span of the time before the summit, there were four car bombings in Cartagena. You have drug cartels still operating there. You have drug cartels who are working with Iran and Hezbollah who would love to get on our doorstep. And then you also have leftist rebels who are responsible for those bombings and who are still operating down there. I mean, just the security breach that happened was just mind boggling.

MARTIN: So it's not just, you know, the tabloids looking at this. You're saying that people who have a real motivation to harm people of the United States, including our leaders, would be looking at an episode like this. So it's - Viviana, does it change anything for you that prostitution is - or sex work - is legal in so-called tolerance zones in Columbia? You know, you might argue that this no different from say smoking a joint in the Netherlands, where certain drugs are illegal. Does that change anything for you?

HURTADO: Before I answer that, Michel, I just have to really say that I don't understand what the security breach could've been. I mean this was nothing but a frenzied sex encounter and it blew up in the media. It's an embarrassment, but if there is any risk at all of security being breached it's with the nightly pillow talk that happens with these men's wives and girlfriends on a much more frequent basis and in those relationships.

MARTIN: Well, wait a minute. How do you know that these were, in fact, sex workers? How do you know that they aren't spies or plants?

HURTADO: Well, they could be.

MARTIN: How do you know?

HURTADO: But again, this was probably a very quick encounter. If anything was exchanged it what's been leaked in the media, that there was just some bravado, I guard the president. But really, think about it logically, what is going to be said in the heat of a moment in a very reduced moment that only lasts several minutes versus the relationships that these men have when they go back home with their wives and girlfriends and the nightly pillow talk? I think that's what people worry about in the case of spies, is a spy becoming, you know, getting into a relationship with somebody who would have access to privileged information.

MARTIN: I don't know, Mary Kate, maybe I've watched too many movies but it seems to me...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: ...that that would be an easy way to plant a listening device, wouldn't it?

CARY: Oh, yeah. Well, there's the two that came to my mind were the risk of blackmail - because obviously, the agents were willing to keep the secret. And second, the risk of having a foreign national in the hotel rooms, where these guys were the advanced teams, so clearly they had the schedules out, the line-by-line, minute-by-minute type stuff of what they were planning. And that would be a very valuable thing, if you're a car bomber, to know. And so these could've been people paid by others to get inside the hotel.

MARTIN: Viviana, you really don't think it's a big deal?

HURTADO: I think it's a big deal in the sense that it's incredibly embarrassing, but this nonsense has been going on since the beginning of time. I tell you, when I did my junior year abroad in Madrid, I was friends with some Marines and one of my friends got pulled because he ended cavorting with a woman and bringing her back to their house where they lived, which was a no-no. And this was years ago. And I think another thing too, and you asked me, Michel, about my feelings on, you know, Cartagena, it's sad because Cartagena and by extension Colombia, has really had this extreme geopolitical, geostrategic makeover.

You know, just thinking about those lost years in the '80s and '90s, when the country was completely turned upside down by drug cartel violence. And, you know, there's even been talk about how it's Cartagena, you know, the new Sin City. And I'll just remind everybody that, you know, at every trade conference that happens in the United States, in taxicab backseats and office cubicles after-hours, there's a lot of nonsense that goes on and all of those spaces are potentials to be Sin City.

MARTIN: OK. Danielle?

BELTON: I really feel like this is an issue that the Secret Service is supposed to be held to a higher standard, because they have such a great responsibility. You know, if I mess up, you know, maybe I don't get paid today. They mess up; we end up in a geopolitical nightmare or possibly the president being harmed. So it's even if liked for whatever reason these women that they had, maybe if they were nowhere near anything, they just weren't supposed to be there. They were a distraction. They weren't focused on their actual jobs. They did not go to Colombia to party.

MARTIN: The question, though, I have, though, do you feel that - and someone else raised this on Neal Conan's program yesterday, the caller was, whether this bespeaks some lack of seriousness about this job?

BELTON: Yeah, that's was disconcerting to me, because, I mean, if I know my job is the president's safety.

MARTIN: Yeah. Well...

HURTADO: And there is a pattern of that with the alleged White House gatecrashers. Everybody focused on Desiree Rogers and how she didn't do her job, but the Secret Service didn't do their job either, so there might in fact be a pattern here.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. You're listening to our Beauty Shop roundtable. We're joined by Viviana Hurtado, blogger-in-chief at The Wise Latina Club, that's who was speaking with us just now. Also with us, Danielle Belton, author of The Black Snob website; Bridget Johnson, Washington, D.C. editor at PJ Media, that's a conservative Libertarian news and opinion website; and Mary Kate Cary of U.S. News & World Report.

Switching gears, I think.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Although, we did talk a little bit about this whole question of pillow talk, we're talking about whether living together before marriage is a good idea. There was new research by the National Marriage Project and it says in the last 50 years, cohabitation has increased by more than 1,500 percent. That study found that the majority of Americans saw cohabitation as a step towards marriage, but it doesn't guarantee a happy ending - if I can use that term.

The project studied a so-called cohabitation effect, and found that couples who live with each other before marriage, are more likely to divorce than couples who do not. And I'm just I'm kind of I'm fascinated by this, because, you know, people have this notion of a kind of try before you buy. It would seem that you would have smoothed out the kinks ahead of time, but it doesn't seem to be that way. I'm just wondering what people feel about that.

Bridget, I think you'd been thinking about this. Why do you think that is?

JOHNSON: Well, one of the interesting things that I think really resonate in that one New York Times article, was that people were moving in with people that they might not necessarily have chosen as a marriage partner. But then, after you move in with them, then you get into all of the entanglements that you have as a married partner but you don't have those same legal protections that you do in marriage. You know, so you might have a house together, you might have pets together, you know, you have the, you know, property issues, etcetera. So I think that it presents a lot of problems, I think, for people who are not choosing carefully. And you really need to choose somebody that you live with as carefully as you would choose a marriage partner, and that's a huge, huge deal.

MARTIN: (Unintelligible). Danielle?

BELTON: I feel like a lot of times the problems that you have is one partner who is kind of interested in marriage and is considering marriage to this other person, and the other person is just like biding time. Like, I don't want to be alone; I don't want to pay, you know, this whole rent by myself. Here is a smart decision for us to live together. Maybe I'll change my mind over time and come to see you as someone I'd like to marry. The only problem is, if you've always had a question about this person, you know, as you I was alluding to, it doesn't go away just because you spent four years living together. If anything, it might exasperate the issue and make it even more apparent when it's time to make a commitment.

MARTIN: Mary Kate, I hate to put you on the spot, but your girls are not quite old enough to be making that decision, but they're...

CARY: Right. They're getting there.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: ...heading in the era where you're talking about, you know, boyfriends and with the expectations are for that.

CARY: Right.

MARTIN: And I'm just wondering, what are your thoughts about this?

CARY: Well, great-grandpa in our family had a phrase for this, which is why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CARY: And I think that talks about removing the incentive for getting married if you're kind of splitting the rent already and you've got a dog and all that, why would you take the next step? I think everything that we know about marriage now, in terms of all these studies. People who are married are happier, healthier, safer, they make more money, they own homes, all these, the stability of society. When you look at that you say to yourself why would I want my girls to live with guys in an endless string of relationships? I'd rather have them find a good guy, not live together, get engaged, get married.

MARTIN: But, well, I don't know. Viviana, do you think that there is an assumption here that perhaps men and women view this arrangement differently or that it's kind of the - that women view cohabiting as a step toward marriage and then view it as its own thing? You know they mean? I just would've wondered what would account for this effect. I'm still kind of wondering about that. Viviana, what do you think?

HURTADO: I think you're onto something, because don't they always say that women view sex as love and men view sex as sex. And so there does seem to be definitely a disconnect going on here, as far as expectations are concerned.

I read the study and I thought it was really interesting. And I thought that, maybe as I got older, I would be more open to living with somebody. And my views haven't changed, and not just because, Michel, mommy is listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HURTADO: But because, you know, I guess I'm still old-fashion. You know, I'm the woman who when I go out on a date with a fellow and he parks his car and proceeds to walk three car lengths, turns around and wonders where I am, I'm in the car waving at him, saying hi, you missed something.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HURTADO: And, you know, you forgot something. And when it comes to I think is a lot of what we're talking about emotionally. You know, living together, making a commitment with somebody, being in a relationship isn't just about economics and a rent break. It's about being, you know, about trust and it's about respect. And you can also be an independent and a strong professional women. So in the words of Beyonce, if you like it, put a ring on it.

MARTIN: Go girl. I knew somebody would have quote Beyonce at some point.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: But you know what? One more word on this, Danielle. You know, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, like, who doesn't know that they've been together for however long.

CARY: Right.

BELTON: Yeah.

MARTIN: They have six children together and they finally announced their engagement. And they seemed to suggest that their kids were pushing them, you know, for this particular...

CARY: The voice of reason. Yeah.

MARTIN: ...threshold. And I just sort of wonder, you know, so I'm wondering, you know, are they going to buck the trend? And then we've got their example and then we've got the whole - dare I bring it up again - Kim Kardashian, Kris Humphries 72-day marriage.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BELTON: I feel like...

CARY: Oh, was it that long?

BELTON: Yeah, I know.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BELTON: I know. I feel like Brad and Angie are a - it's like an isolated rare fluke case. I mean they've already committed to adopting children together. To me that, I mean if you've already decided you're going to adopt kids with people, have kids with people that adopt more kids and travel all the - I mean to me in my mind they were already common law husband and wife. Like, you know, the marriage was a nice formality that apparently their kids wanted. But they were already living as if they were each other's spouses...

HURTADO: Right.

BELTON: ...and committing and sharing assets and income and everything.

MARTIN: That's a really nice ring. That's all I'm going to say about that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I'm sorry. That's, I hope it, I wish them the best, OK, if I may.

Danielle Belton is The Black Snob, she blogs on her website about pop culture and politics. Also here with us, Bridget Johnson, Washington, D.C., editor for PJ Media, the conservative Libertarian commentary and news website. Mary Kate Cary is a columnist and blogger for U.S. News & World Report, also former speech writer for President George H. W. Bush. They were all here in Washington, D.C. today. Viviana Hurtado, blogger-in-chief at The Wise Latina Club joined us from our bureau in New York.

Ladies, thank you.

BELTON: Thank you.

JOHNSON: Thanks, Michel.

CARY: Thanks.

HURTADO: Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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