Political sex scandals: An old ritual with new rules

In going from revelation to resignation in just under 31/2 hours, Rep. Chris Lee (R-N.Y.) might have set a new indoor speed record for the life cycle of a Washington sex scandal.

But the nature of his indiscretion and the way in which it played out confirm that the Internet and the modern media culture have rewritten at least some of the rules surrounding this most time-honored of Capitol rituals.

Although moral lapses prove fatal for some politicians, others manage to survive them.

Some even find a path to redemption.

Despite the fact that his phone number was found in the logs of a Washington prostitution service in 2007, Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) breezed to reelection last year, outraising his Democratic opponent by better than 3 to 1.

It has yet to be seen whether Nevada voters will give Republican Sen. John Ensign a pass after his 2009 admission that he had an affair with the wife of a top aide. The Senate Ethics Committee is investigating allegations that he subsequently tried to find lobbying work for the aggrieved aide.

Even as the city was abuzz over Lee on Thursday, Ensign was holding a D.C. fundraiser for his 2012 reelection bid. Suggested contribution: $500 to $2,000.

So what makes the difference between a politician surviving a sex scandal and being crushed by one?

The evidence

Is it the sex or the stupidity?

There has always been plenty of fooling around on Capitol Hill, but in the old days, it was generally done in a more discreet way - arranged perhaps through an obliging lobbyist or, in Vitter's case, through a madam.

Twenty-first-century technology affords other ways of reaching out but also the danger that the evidence can show up on pretty much everyone's computer screen within seconds. Members of Congress seem to be a little slow in figuring that out.

In 2006, Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) was done in by the sexually explicit instant messages he had sent three years before to an underage congressional page, to whom he had referred as "my favorite young stud." It is unclear whether Foley was technologically savvy enough to be aware that the messages could be saved and passed along.

Whatever else Lee may have accomplished in his 25 months in the House, he appears destined to be known as "the Craigslist Congressman."

What was most puzzling about Lee was not that he would answer an ad in the "Women for men" section of the Craigslist personals but that he would use his actual name and e-mail address, and then send along a digital photo of his own shirtless body.

The 46-year-old congressman also claimed to be a 39-year-old lobbyist. This may have been an effort to hide his identity or perhaps represented some kind of only-in-Washington assumption that this would be a turn-on. Either way, he should have known that the object of his flirtation had the online skills - which in this case would be an awareness of the existence of something called Google - to quickly figure out who he is.

The rest of the story

Where most voters probably had a hunch that Bill Clinton had something of an eye for women who were not his wife, they liked his other qualities and his accomplishments well enough that they elected him anyway - twice. And two years after the Monica Lewinsky scandal that led to his impeachment by the House, Clinton left office with approval ratings in the mid-60s, the highest of any president in half a century.

On the other hand, former senator and presidential contender John Edwards had built much of his public persona on the strong relationship that he had with his wife, Elizabeth, a bond that had been forged through the tragedies of their son's death and her incurable cancer. So when Edwards had an affair and fathered a child with a campaign videographer, his career became unsalvageable.

Relative unknowns such as Lee and former Rep. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.), who resigned last year amid an ethics investigation into alleged sexual harassment of male staffers, fall into a different category.

Redemption is almost impossible when a lawmaker's misbehavior is all most people have ever heard about them - and especially when it becomes an instant punch line for late-night comedians.

The humiliation can be compounded if the cover story turns out to be ridiculous, such as the alibi by former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford (R) that he was "hiking the Appalachian Trail," when he was really meeting his mistress in South America. Or as tortured as the explanation by former Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho) that his "wide stance" in a Minneapolis airport restroom stall explained how he had come to be tapping the foot of an undercover officer - something the subsequent arrest report described as a "signal often used by persons communicating a desire to engage in sexual conduct."

As one Democratic strategist, who has had a front-row view of these things by virtue of having worked for two politicians involved in sex scandals, put it: "What matters is a combination of the crime, the public's investment in you and whether or not the crime relates to what are believed to be your core strengths."

The who and the where

It would seem that some states and districts are more tolerant than others. Vitter's home state of Louisiana is famous for its devil-may-care approach to life and its long tradition of looking the other way - even taking a perverse kind of pride - when politicians are caught in scandal.

That's not so much the case in a place such as, say, Indiana, where Rep. Mark Souder (R) was quickly shown the exit after being caught in an affair with a part-time aide. It didn't help, either, that Souder's political brand was based in large measure on his support for traditional family values - and that he and his mistress had made a video together promoting them. The video found a much wider audience once their liaison was revealed.

There is also less leeway when a scandal involves someone who works for a lawmaker, especially if that person is underage. But in those cases, too, the outcome can be different, depending on where the politician comes from and the regard in which he is held.

Foley was not the first lawmaker accused of preying on congressional pages. In 1983, two lawmakers were censured in the House for having engaged in sexual relationships with 17-year-old pages. Rep. Dan Crane, a heterosexual Republican from Illinois, was defeated in the next election; Rep. Gerry Studds, a gay Democrat from Massachusetts, was reelected six more times and voluntarily retired in 1996.

Then there is also a third path: reinvention.

You might call it the Eliot Spitzer model. Though he was highly accomplished and admired for some of the work he had done as New York attorney general and governor, Spitzer was also faulted for having a big ego and an excess of self-righteousness. The married governor was forced to resign by revelations that he had a fondness for prostitutes.

But he hasn't left the scene, and indeed, the humbling might have opened up a new avenue as well. Spitzer has landed a new gig - and a possible route to redemption - as a talk-show host on CNN.

tumultyk@washpost.com Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.

Karen Tumulty is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where she received the 2013 Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting.

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