How is it that some political sex scandals are so ruinous — and others are magically survivable? Surely we can craft a formula.
Let’s have x represent the level of naughtiness (e-mail flirtation = 1; dead bodies = 10), and y represent the scale of coverup (1 = “God, I’m so sorry,” and 10 = hush money), then if x + y < 6 , for example, you’re safe? . . . Or does y represent the hypocrisy factor (lifelong libertine = 1; holy roller = 10)? Or the existence of photos? Or the safety of one’s seat?
Try as we might, we can’t make the math explain why David Vitter hung on to his career while Chris Lee lost his in an instant — or predict what’s going to happen with Anthony Weiner. There are simply too many factors to consider.
For example: Novelty! Democratic crisis-control guru Chris Lehane argues that’s what’s given Weinergate so much shock value for a scandal that doesn’t seem to involve any actual sex. The public almost assumes politicians have affairs, he said. But an underwear shot on Twitter? Strange new stuff. “This is the first social media scandal of its kind,” he said.
Whether your sex scandal is fatal to your career often depends on how big the story becomes, which depends on whether your scandal has certain hooks to give journalists an excuse to cover it. “If a crime was committed, that’s at the top of the pyramid,” said Mark Feldstein, who teaches journalism at the University of Maryland. “There’s the hypocrisy angle, there’s the will-it-affect-the-campaign angle, there’s the lying/deceit angle.”
Plus: Location, location, location. Lehane says scandals can go nuclear if rooted in both N.Y.C. and D.C., two overheated media climates. “You can just see those markets ping-ponging off each other — New York reports something, D.C. follows; D.C. reports something, New York follows” — as Eliot Spitzer experienced. Not an issue for Sen. Vitter, who had an additional home-court advantage of being from New Orleans, where a little ol’ call girl controversy maybe isn’t that shocking.
Other factors: Can you manage to portray your scandal as something cooked up by partisan opponents — as Bill Clinton did? Or can you explain to the public that, yeah, you’re a dog in your personal life but it has no effect on your job? That was Alexander Hamilton’s approach when confronted with evidence of an affair, all the way back in 1795. He lost his job as Treasury secretary — but he remains on our $10 bills.