By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
But contrast the near-instant disappearance of Spitzer with the more typical experiences of, say, Reps. Dan Crane (R-Ill.) and Gerry Studds (D-Mass.). Both men were censured by the House in 1983 for their respective affairs with congressional pages -- Crane with a 17-year-old girl, Studds with a 17-year-old boy.
Disclosure of a lesser transgression -- sending salacious e-mails to a page -- got Foley drummed out of Congress in a matter of days in 2006. But Crane survived, and Studds thrived. Crane apologized and managed to serve out his term, although he lost his bid for reelection in 1984. Studds, who admitted "a very serious error in judgment," continued to win reelection until his retirement from Congress in 1997.
Not all sexual scandals are created equal, of course. An informal list of some 50 scandals over the past 30 years involving sexual misconduct by high officials (a president, a Supreme Court nominee, members of Congress, governors, big-city mayors) includes a range of behaviors or suspected behaviors, such as having an extramarital affair, soliciting a prostitute, having sex with a minor, sexual harassment or fathering an illegitimate child. Of those, voters are most willing to forgive a philandering politician, says Frank Mankiewicz, who managed then-Sen. George McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign.
"An affair at least suggests romance, even if it's very hard on the [non-cheating] spouse," says Mankiewicz, who is vice chairman of Hill & Knowlton, a public-affairs firm. Which is why, he says, Rudy Giuliani's political career survived his very public affair with (now wife) Judith Nathan while he was mayor of New York, yet Spitzer's alleged involvement with a high-priced call girl will end his career.
An additional factor, Mankiewicz says, is the degree of hypocrisy involved. "People said if Eliot Spitzer had been Edwin Edwards [the scandal-plagued former governor of Louisiana], he would have survived. If you've always been a bit of rogue, people are willing to say, 'Oh, that's just him.' But Spitzer was a stickler for rectitude," a candidate who ran on his law-and-order record.
Fiedler reduces this to a formula, saying, "The sharper the divergence between an official's public image and his private reality, the faster his fall."
He also cites a comment ascribed to Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who overcame a controversy about his involvement with a gay prostitute in the late 1980s: "Everyone in public life is entitled to privacy but no one in public life is entitled to hypocrisy."