Feature

Sex scandals: Why some politicians survive

Scores of philandering politicians have toughed out scandals and kept their jobs. Why not Anthony Weiner?

He committed no crime, said Devin Dwyer in ABCNews.com. He never “had a love child, married his lover, cheated with a staffer’s wife,” hired a hooker, had sex with a congressional page, or lied under oath to hide an affair. So why was Rep. Anthony Weiner—guilty only of sending lewd photographs and texts to a half-dozen female admirers on the Internet—forced to resign last week under pressure from his Democratic colleagues? “Past politicos have survived much worse,” said Alex Parker in USNews.com. From President Clinton, to South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, to Sens. David Vitter and Larry Craig, not to mention numerous congressmen, scores of philandering politicians have toughed out scandals and kept their jobs. What are the unwritten rules that determine who stays and who goes?

First, take no photographs, said John Harris in Politico.com. We learned far, far more than we wanted to know about Bill Clinton’s sex life during the Lewinsky episode, but at least we were spared any pictures of a naked commander-in-chief. Had any such images existed, they would have burned themselves permanently into the public mind and, as with Weiner, “made his continued service impossible.” If a politician has a weakness for extramarital flings, said Eugene Robinson in The Washington Post, he really needs to stay away from the Internet. The great postmodern irony of Weiner’s downfall is that “he would have been better off if he had arranged to meet those women for secret trysts,” rather than conducting virtual affairs online. “The Internet never forgets.”

The oldest rule of all still holds, said Adam Daifallah in Canada’s National Post: “As with Watergate and nearly every scandal since, the cover-up is worse than the crime.” Rather than coming clean the moment they get caught, many politicians think they can lie, spin, and obfuscate their way out of trouble, using the same persuasive talents on which they built a career. But it rarely works. Lying only whets the media’s appetite and prolongs the scandal, and voters take the lying personally. The smartest strategy is to confess, and keep your head low for a while. Sincerity is everything, said Edward Morrissey in CNN.com, because “Americans like to believe in redemption.” If disgraced politicians can convince the public that they’re truly remorseful and determined to mend their ways, “they’ll usually get a second chance.” Hear that, Anthony Weiner?

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