By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 3, 2006
Sex scandals involving politicians are as old as Thomas Jefferson, but the outcome seems to depend on which party you represent. In recent years, for the most part, Democrats have been able to survive their sordid escapades while Republicans have paid with their political lives.
The latest example: Mark Foley, a Republican congressman from Florida, who abruptly became an ex-congressman from Florida last week amid revelations that he had sent sexually explicit e-mails to teenage boys who were serving as House pages.
Foley's creepy behavior might have done him in even if he'd been the most liberal of Democrats. But that's not assured. With a Republican at the center of the seamy scandal, however, it was almost a slam-dunk that Foley would have to quit.
That's how it usually turns out for members of the conservative, traditional-family-values party. Just ask Bob Livingston, Jack Ryan, Bob Packwood, Dan Crane or others in the GOP who've watched their careers go pffft! with salacious disclosures. Or ask Bill Clinton, Gerry Studds, Barney Frank and other Democrats who've withstood embarrassing revelations to govern another day. Consider, for example:
· Packwood, from Oregon, resigned his Senate seat in 1995 amid repeated allegations that he had sexually harassed women. A few years earlier, Rep. Jim Bates, a Democrat from the San Diego area, faced similar allegations by two female staffers. Bates refused to resign and won reelection (he eventually lost his seat to Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who ran into his own ethics problems last year, and resigned after being convicted of bribery).
· In 1998, Livingston won the Republican Party's blessing to succeed Newt Gingrich as speaker of the House. But Livingston, of Louisiana, never served a day in the job. He was sunk by revelations that he'd had an extramarital affair, a disclosure that carried the additional baggage of hypocrisy since, at the time, Livingston was leading the Republican impeachment of President Clinton for his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Clinton, of course, ultimately survived impeachment.
· Rep. Thomas Evans (R-Del.) was voted out of office in 1982 after he publicly regretted his "association" with a lobbyist named Paula Parkinson, who later posed for Playboy; Evans and two other Republican House members (including one named Dan Quayle) had shared a Florida cottage with Parkinson on a junket. Contrast this to the reaction to allegations of an affair between Sen. Chuck Robb (D-Va.) and Tai Collins, a former Miss Virginia. Robb claimed that Collins had only given him a back rub in a hotel room. Robb won reelection three years later.
· The clearest illustration may be in the divergent outcomes of the cases against Crane (R) and Studds (D) in 1983. Both men were censured by the House for having sex with underage congressional pages -- Crane with a 17-year-old girl in 1980, Studds with a 17-year-old boy in 1973. Crane, of Illinois, apologized for his actions, while Studds, who declared he was gay, refused. Crane lost his reelection bid the next year; Studds, of Massachusetts, kept winning his seat until he retired in 1996.
A double standard? And if so, by whom?
"The reality is that Democrats seem to get away with more," says Chuck Todd, editor in chief of the Hotline, a daily political journal. "They can have an affair and bail [themselves] out. There's a lower threshold for Republicans. I guess it's more of a hypocrisy thing," he adds, because such scandals put Republicans at odds with the party's socially conservative image.
Todd thinks he knows who's to blame for this: "It's the media, to be honest. What is the standard 'gotcha' story in the media? It's hypocrisy. If we can prove hypocrisy, we have a story. . . . So in a sex scandal, the bar for Republicans is lower."
He cites the case of Jack Ryan, the Illinois Republican whose bid for the Senate was derailed in 2004 when his wife, actress Jeri Ryan, alleged in divorce papers that he had taken her to sex clubs and had asked her to engage in sexual activity in front of other patrons. "What's amazing is that his candidacy hit the wall not because he had sex, but because he was thinking about having sex," says Todd.
But it's tough to blame the media when it's the electorate that determines who stays and who goes.
In Studds's case, he happened to represent a liberal (and apparently quite forgiving) district, while Crane came from a conservative rural district. Ditto with Barney Frank, who was reelected in his liberal Massachusetts district after it was revealed that he hired a male prostitute in 1985 to work in his District apartment, and the young man used the apartment to run a prostitution service. Clinton, meanwhile, was elected president twice, which may have had something to do with his ability to survive the storm over alleged extramarital affairs.
"A scandal's a scandal and the media will jump on it, no matter what party," notes Michael Farquhar, author of "A Treasury of Great American Scandals." On the other hand, notes Farquhar, a reporter who is on leave from The Post, "there's probably that extra twinge of delight [in the media] when, say, a gay-bashing Republican gets caught soliciting sex in a men's room, or a pious espouser of family values sleeps with his secretary."
There are exceptions, of course. A few Democrats have lost their jobs as a result of scandals. Wayne Hays, a Democrat from Ohio, resigned his House seat in 1976 after the disclosure of his affair with Elizabeth Ray, the curvaceous blonde who "worked" in Hays's office despite no evident secretarial skills. Gary Hart, who famously dared reporters to follow him around to prove he was squeaky clean, blew up as a Democratic presidential candidate in 1984 after reporters found him leaving a Capitol Hill townhouse after spending the night with a woman not his wife. And Gary Condit, a conservative Democrat from Modesto, Calif., lost his seat in 2002 following saturation coverage of his relationship with murdered intern Chandra Levy.
It's also true that Wilbur Mills, the powerful Democratic chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee in the 1970s, lost his chairmanship after cavorting in the Tidal Basin with Fanne Foxe, "the Argentine Firecracker."
What's forgotten, however, is that Mills won reelection after his Tidal Basin romp; he was stripped of his chairmanship only after he appeared on a stage in Boston with Foxe, apparently drunk. House Democrats demanded his resignation, and got it.