So here we are again, America. It seems like yesterday we had just emerged from the latest political sex scandal, but it was really way back in February 2011 that “Craigslist Congressman” Chris Lee‘s career ended nearly before it began thanks to his decision to solicit sex from a stranger on the internet, but that scandal has already been eclipsed by Rep. Anthony Weiner‘s surprisingly cut chest. How the media and the public reacted to both can serve as a scale on which to evaluate the forgiveness each is willing to give a fallen public servant.
Rep. Weiner, who finally laid the mystery to rest of how a photo of his aroused body appeared on his Twitter account today by admitting that he had, in fact, tweeted it, and engaged in several inappropriate relations with young women, has declared he isn’t resigning– nor is he getting a divorce. All this occurred merely hours ago, after a week of combative interviews and what he has admitted to be outright lying– not the best frame in which the story could rest for him. In contrast, his colleague, also from the state of New York, openly admitted to the Craigslist exchanges being his, and resigned immediately.
Neither is the first nor the last in the long list of ethically troubled public servants to face similar problems, but given their similar backgrounds and internet troubles, the naughtiness Congressmen of 2011– one Republican, one Democrats; one resigning, one remaining– serve as a neat little thought experiment on how the public reacts to their public officials when they prove to lack moral fortitude. While not exact, there does appear to be a science to public opinion regarding political sex scandals, and a metric with which to determine how the public will react to them.
Below are several large-scale factors in play when evaluating the egregiousness of a sexual trespass by a political figure:
Hypocrisy: Does your rhetoric match your behavior?
The politicians most vulnerable to their own moral shortcomings tend to have made their personal lives a public issue, either by heralding “family values” as a platform point or governing in a manner that deems some lifestyles more moral than others. Both the media and the public have made swift mincemeat of said politicians– from the Idaho Republican with the “wide stance” Larry Craig to Newt Gingrich, who was having an affair while criticizing Bill Clinton for his indiscretions with an intern.
Here Rep. Lee’s campaigning as a conservative could have prompted him to resign far quicker than a Democrat in the same situation (say, Rep. Weiner) would have, and his statement apologizing to his constituents proves indicates he knew that. Rep. Weiner, on the other hand, faces no such challenge. The point has been made several times that there is no hypocrisy in what Rep. Weiner may have been engaging in– after all, no one would describe him as a “family values conservative,” and Clinton himself officiated his wedding.
Intimacy: How private was the illicit behavior?
An affair away from the eyes and ears of the public, in forums where they are not exposed tend to be frowned upon less severely than loud, open, public ones. Public could mean both one in which a couple appears shameless in the outside world– say, former New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey and his Secretary of Homeland Security boyfriend– or one in which the activity occurs in public (once again, Larry Craig is the example to follow here, who was caught in an airport bathroom and not in a bedroom.
Craigslist is about as public a forum as it gets, though Rep. Lee didn’t actually post his photo to the website like, say, Rep. Weiner did to Twitter. Even as a mistake, history shows that the media is not particularly forgiving with stupid mistakes, paramount among which is airing your dirty laundry in public.
Familiarity: How well did the politician know the other person in the scandal?
Scandals with strangers are far more insidious to the public eye than those where the people interacting have at least a cursory understanding of their personalities. This is why prostitutes are particularly frowned upon, even when hypocrisy is not a factor (take, for instance, the fall of Eliot Spitzer). Larry Craig, too, was not just a laughingstock because of hypocrisy. He was willing (allegedly) to engage in private activity with strangers.
While the story has yet not sufficiently unraveled, giving Rep. Weiner the benefit of the doubt would allow for him to have chatted with his ladies on Twitter for some time before interacting with them, even if not physically. Here Lee was far more in breach. Craigslist is a service that necessarily requires the user to engage in intimate activities with a stranger– no one goes there to find someone they know; that’s what texting is for. It took only one round of exchanges for Lee to send a shirtless photo. Scandalous as Rep. Weiner’s photos may be, there is no indication they were meant for someone with whom weiner hadn’t engendered the necessary familiarity for the photos to not be expressions of affection.
Media Friendliness: How salacious is this story after all?
Few politicians caught in embarrassing situations dare defy the press when caught, as the media is the lens through which most of the public will judge their behavior. Rep. Lee never went after Gawker for publishing their initial report. He also never really fought back; it took merely hours for him to resign. Rep. Weiner called a reporter a “jackass” and lied through his teeth before apologizing to the man who broke the story, Andrew Breitbart. While straight apologies go a long way, disrespecting the media with such dishonesty knowing the public would give him the benefit of the doubt causes nearly irreparable damage.
The Senator David Vitter Effect
Sen. Vitter has been in office since 2005. He was caught soliciting the services of prostitutes both in D.C. and his native Louisiana. One of his aides was arrested for domestic violence. He used to be a birther. He said Rachel Maddow didn’t really look like a woman anymore. He was reelected last November with 57% of the vote. He is a political mutant, for which political scientists have yet to find an explanation.
Neither Rep. Lee nor Rep. Weiner are Sen. David Vitter, so that factor instantly weighs against them. And difficult as it may be to judge what the future holds for Rep. Weiner, once a potential New York mayoral candidate, his chances of surviving depend heavily on him ingratiating himself to the media he treated so rudely and regaining the public’s trust. Rep. Lee had his rhetoric to contend with– being a Republican with social conservatism in his platform, his constituents expected him not to stray from his marriage. Rep. Weiner’s constituents, many likely being as liberal as he is, never expected the same. In exchange for such moral leniency, they also expect not to be lied to with a straight face. Rep. Weiner proved he could stare at news cameras for days and lie about something frivolous and inconsequential– how could he be expected to not do the same about issues that actually affect the people he works for? Rep. Lee never violated that oath– he told the truth, took the shame that came with it, and stepped aside. Rep. Lee never called the police on Gawker the way Rep. Weiner did on CBS. The media will be forever disinclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, and the public will be averse to believing him when he says the sky is blue. It’s a deep hole he has dug himself, but there is really only one way to climb out: heading back to the office and proving he cares about the people who hired him.
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