January 16, 2013
(Joshua Drake/Reuters) The thing is, it could work.
The thing is, it could work. (Joshua Drake/Reuters)

It was an embarrassing few minutes. The exposure was regrettable. The angle was bad. The dialogue was unrealistic. And it’s going to be on the Internet forever.

Never mind that it was years ago. It still comes right up when you Google it. Every so often, in moments of weakness, I allow myself to view it in its entirety, crying softly — although not at the office, of course.

By now you have surely guessed what I am talking about: Not the porn career of California teacher Stacie Halas, also known as “Tiffany Six.” Of course not. I meant former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford’s infamous rambling press conference in which he confessed to an affair, admitted to “crying in Argentina” and spoke bewilderingly of his struggle against self and thanked “the Tom Davises of this world.” As embarrassing videos posted on the Internet go, he has Kim Kardashian beat by several leagues.

Both Halas and Sanford are now making efforts to move past their pasts. And I regret to note that it seems to be working much better for him.

Mark Sanford is making a run for Congress in his former South Carolina district. And people seem to think this is a viable plan. “Hey,” they say. “Name recognition!” These are the same people who seem to think Anthony Weiner is an exciting mayoral prospect. Meanwhile, Halas tried to reinvent herself as a middle school science teacher, after a brief career in which she did not break up her family or mislead taxpayers. And she’s still out of a job.

“There are no second acts in American lives,” F. Scott Fitzgerald said. Well, unless you’re in politics.

In most lines of work, past indiscretions can be something of a hindrance. Leave an embarrassing video somewhere in the bowels of the Internet? Forget teaching middle school. Halas was fired in April from her post as a science teacher after students and faculty at the Haydock Intermediate School in Oxnard, Calif., discovered some of her videos online. And Friday the California Commission on Professional Competence (in a unanimous 46-page decision) ruled that she should stay out of the classroom. The situation was not helped by her efforts to conceal her past from her employers. The ruling called this more evidence of mendacity and further proof that she was no role model, although I have difficulty picturing a scenario in which you make no effort to conceal the fact that you used to appear in pornographic videos and someone hires you on the spot to teach middle school.

Perhaps that someone has a point. Middle schoolers are a uniquely cruel bunch. But if you are willing to walk into a classroom and teach them science, with the knowledge that this kind of video is lurking over your head on the Internet suspended by a tiny thread — well, this country does need math and science teachers…

But the commission felt otherwise. There are no second chances in middle school science.

Back in the olden days, you always vaguely suspected that the librarian had a sordid past, but you could not quite prove it. What harm did it do? It did not impair her grasp of the Dewey Decimal System.

But not now. Lady Bracknell’s salad days as a can-can dancer are searchable. Don’t think of changing your legal name, James Gatz. Forget adopting that child with your prison record, Jean Valjean. There are no second acts in lives lived half online.

Celebrities can get away with these things. And even politicians, to a certain extent, can ride the wave of notoriety — at least as far as Eliot Spitzer’s talk show.

But what about the rest of us?

I kept assuming that we were about to hit the point where the saturation was complete, where, animated by the knowledge that there is no one alive whose college photos, if broadcast, would not fill the world with shock and horror, we would stop pulling the Gasp!-Behold-Hester-Prynne!-Someone-Stick-A-Giant-’A’-On-That-Lady! act and start accepting that we are all flawed, change is possible, and some allowances must be made. But we have not. We keep pointing. We keep thinking we are safe.

After all, some people are. In school we all knew that one guy Greg who kept a turtle, woke up early, read improving books, and never went out on Thursdays. But do we really want Gregs in charge of everything?

The judge in the porn star teacher’s case noted that the Internet is “viral” and “infinite” which is a gloomy way of looking at it. There are no comebacks. It is a giant bathroom wall where every scrawl will live forever. If you write big enough you can perhaps write over it. Look at Bill Clinton. But woe to you if that’s the only thing that’s up there. Rick Santorum had to mount a whole presidential campaign to fix his “Google problem.” The only way to induce people to forget is to make even more noise.

If Sanford and Halas’s respective plights demonstrate anything, it is the fact that It is not on the heads of celebrities or even political figures that the ax usually falls. If you are Ann Coulter and you say something deplorable, they book you on cable for more of the same. If you are an ordinary person, you get included in a list of Hideous Racists and lose your job at Coldstone Creamery.

No, it is clear that the artist formerly known as Tiffany Six is in the wrong line of work. Pornography is a poor choice for a first career. You can’t engage in congress on camera and try to engage in anything else afterwards, except to become one of those Famous Celebrities Everyone Dislikes.

Perhaps she should run for office instead. It could hardly make things worse. It might be her only hope.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.