David Petraeus, Mark Sanford, Anthony Weiner and the art of the comeback


U.S. Gen. David Petraeus is the latest in the list of high-profile public figures who appear interested in making a comeback following scandal (Alex Wong/Getty Images).

 

LATELY, it seems, everyone’s working on a comeback.

There’s Mark Sanford, running for Congress in South Carolina after an affair during his term as governor. There’s former N.Y. congressman Anthony Weiner, best known for the lewd tweets he sent, who has been floating trial balloons recently as a candidate for mayor of New York. (He’s even back on Twitter.) And on Tuesday, City University of New York’s MacCaulay Honors College announced that former CIA director David Petraeus, who was revealed to be having an affair with his biographer, is joining as a visiting professor of public policy.

They all have something in common: An affair or other extramarital disgrace led to a career downfall and a temporary exit from political life. Now, all three men are trying to rehabilitate their careers, with varying levels of success. There are no silver bullets on the comeback trail. Whether it can work has a lot to do with what got them there in the first place, how quickly they try to rehab their image, and how much they do—or better, don’t—make their return all about themselves.

Context is key in the aftermath of a scandal. Petraeus will likely have the easiest time: He was a widely respected general whose affair may have hurt his family and his career, but he did not lie about it and resigned immediately when it came to light. Sanford’s affair was made worse when his staff famously attempted to cover for him during an absence, and when it came out that he had misused state travel funds.

Both men have one advantage in the comeback arena that Weiner doesn’t: There are no lewd images following them around the Internet. We can block the image of General Petraeus and his biographer in a hotel room from our minds, because we never saw it. Unfortunately we can’t say the same for Weiner’s underwear.

Timing is another major factor in rehabilitations. Like stages of grief, the public goes through different emotional responses after a scandal ends. First comes morbid fascination, followed by disgust, followed not too long afterwards by “wait, who?” as the incident gets crowded out by the latest scandal. (There will always be another.) While it’s too early to tell whether the three years Sanford waited or the two Weiner did is enough, the American public eventually tends to forgive if not forget. Just look at Bill Clinton, Eliot Spitzer and Tiger Woods.

It also helps, of course, if the first step on the comeback trail shows a modicum of restraint. Weiner’s and Sanford’s post-scandal roles have included corporate board member, real estate dealmaker and diapering dad. Respectable? Of course. But none offer the kind of resume rehabilitation—teaching, nonprofits, charity work and the like—that many people want to see before someone has the chutzpah to ask for their vote again. Petraeus’ move into academia (at a lesser-known college that mostly teaches children of immigrants, no less) is the more typical route, and likely the more successful one as well.

But the most critical ingredient for anyone trying to undergo image rehab is, ironically, that their focus turns away from themselves. That’s one reason the New York Times Magazine cover story on Weiner and his wife didn’t have the impact it might have. It felt like a therapy session at times, more than just an exercise in coming clean. It’s also why the 1,200-word, full-page ad from Mark Sanford rebutting the trespassing allegations against him backfired so badly. (“It’s been a rough week,” Sanford began, seemingly oblivious to how tone deaf he sounded at the end of a week that included a terrorist attack in Boston, a horrible fertilizer plant explosion in Texas and an attempt to poison the president.)

As a public, we’re willing to forgive, but we need a little help. Give us time. Take on a do-gooder job or two before you ask us to vote for you again. And when you do try to retake the stage, make sure the focus stays off of you, even if it is your image that’s really in need of the boost.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

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Lillian Cunningham · April 23, 2013