Bad News Travels Fast, And Furiously
Friday, March 14, 2008
Sex scandals have been tainting American politicians and titillating the public for nearly as long as there have been American politicians and publics. In 1797, former Treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton confessed to a long affair with the married Maria Reynolds after a pamphleteer published the couple's love letters. The episode dented Hamilton's reputation at the time, but hasn't damaged his standing as a Founding Father.
What's changed since then -- indeed, what's changed in just the past decade or so -- is the ability of any politician to survive tawdry, indecent or even criminal behavior of a sexual nature.
What New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer discovered this week is also what a host of elected philanderers, fondlers, sexual harassers and call-girl clients have found out in recent years: News of unsavory doings travels so widely and so fast nowadays that the pressure on the accused can quickly become overwhelming. As a result, compared with the pre-Internet era, politicians are less likely than ever to survive a sex scandal with their careers intact.
The news about Spitzer came on "like an explosion, which clearly shows you the warp speed that information is capable of traveling in a wired world," says Tom Fiedler, a lecturer at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Such speed "forces [the accused] to make decisions more quickly. You can't sit back and reflect."
The career of Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) was vaporized almost from the instant his salacious instant messages to an underage congressional page were revealed in 2006. New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey (D) was out not long after his alleged affair with a male government employee came to light. In 2004, Rep. Ed Schrock (R-Va.) abruptly quit his reelection campaign just days after revelations that he had placed a personal ad with a phone service that arranges liaisons for gay men. Rep. Gary Condit (D-Calif.) didn't survive the primary after the Chandra Levy affair.
Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) said he would quit after news spread of his airport bathroom arrest last year, but he apparently changed his mind and remains in office.
Similarly, Bob Livingston's dreams of becoming speaker of the House imploded once news of his extramarital relations became public in 1998, amid the Clinton impeachment hearings. (Livingston's successor in Louisiana, then-Rep. David Vitter, was later linked to the D.C. Madam prostitution case; now a senator, Vitter remains in office.)
And Republican Jack Ryan might be the junior senator from Illinois today if it hadn't been for his peculiar tastes in entertainment; his ex-wife, actress Jeri Ryan, testified in divorce proceedings that her husband took her to sex clubs and asked her to have sex in front of other patrons. The story killed Ryan's election chances in 2004, paving the way to victory for a then-obscure state senator named Barack Obama.
All those episodes occurred after the biggest sex scandal to hit since the emergence of the Internet: President Bill Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky, which besmirched his legacy, though he did finish his second term. Since Clinton's impeachment, the career mortality rate for politicians involved in a sex scandal has risen.
Scandal-tinged pols get deep-sixed faster than ever because of "the pace of the news moves so much faster," says Amy Fried of the University of Maine, who has studied political scandals. Cable news puts a story front and center for hours, and sometimes days, on end; Fried says she was receiving e-jokes about Spitzer via e-mail just hours after the story broke.
At the same time, the Internet connects people to news that they would never have known about just a few years ago, Fried points out. Before of the Internet, Fried says, few people might have noticed that an Obama adviser, Samantha Power, had called Hillary Clinton "a monster" in an interview with a Scottish newspaper. Now, they not only hear about it, they can read the interview with two clicks of a mouse.
Harvard's Fiedler was involved in one of the few pre-Clinton scandals that moved with lightning speed. In 1987, he was one of the two Miami Herald reporters who disclosed Sen. Gary Hart's relationship with Donna Rice. Within a week of the revelation, Hart quit the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.