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Political sex scandals: An old ritual with new rules

So many political scandals, so hard to keep track. Here are some of the most memorable of the past decade.

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 10, 2011; 2:55 PM

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.

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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.


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