When government becomes a reality show

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Anthony Weiner listens to a question from the media after courting voters outside a Harlem subway station a day after announcing he will enter the New York mayoral race.

Maybe I took those high school civics classes too seriously, but isn't there something wrong when the running for and holding of political office is indistinguishable from the kind of reality shows that you hate-watch?

To wit: the tabloid heaven that is the New York election season. First came Anthony Weiner, the former congressman with the all too Dickensian name, returning from his sexting scandal to run for mayor. As if that wasn't gift enough for the writers of the late-night show monologues, along comes former Gov. Eliot Spitzer escaping his call-girl past to run for comptroller.


Meanwhile in Virginia, it's not sex but that other thing that mixes so humiliatingly with politics, swag. With Kardashian-like grasping, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife have been snapping up some major bling from a prominent businessman in the state.

It's all so delightfully awful. I know I shouldn't watch. These aren't my states or my elected representatives. But of course, we've exported our share of political spectacles over the years so, schadenfreude is fair play. Or something.


Anyway, The Washington Post has been reporting that Jonnie Williams, the head of a dietary supplement company and a major political donor to Virginia's McDonnell, treated the first lady to a $15,000 shopping spree at Bergdorf's and, after she admired his Rolex, agreed to her request that he buy one for her to give to hubby. She would have gotten an Oscar de la Renta gown for her husband's inauguration as well if an aide hadn't intervened.

Shades of our own former mayor Sheila Dixon and her madcap shopping trips to Saks with developer Ron Lipscombe. But Dixon's furs and gift cards seem like party favors compared to the vacations and catering and wedding presents that reportedly flowed to the McDonnells. We can only hope that, at some point, we'll get one heck of haul video on YouTube.

The seemingly daily drip of revelations, leaking from a federal investigation, seems career-ending — except the bar for that seems ever on the rise. By contrast, the amount of time you have to spend in political purgatory before returning to the public arena gets shorter and shorter.

Take the case of Mark Sanford, the South Carolina governor who was discovered to, in fact, not be hiking the Appalachian trail back in the not-so-distant year of 2009, but tangoing with his Argentine mistress.

It took less than four years for him to cycle from revelation to resignation to redemption. (If that's what you can call being elected to the current Congress, which strikes me more as punishment than reward at this point.)

For Spitzer, it's been just slightly longer, five years since he was revealed to be the client of call girl service. And Weiner has barely been away, having resigned just two years ago after tweeting racy pictures of himself to women.

It is of course unfair to lump all these misbehaviors together. Sexting, after all, is not an actual crime — except to the sensibilities of everyone but the two consenting parties — while prostitution is.

And everyone has their own algorithm for rating the total badness of the deed: the relative grossness of explicit Twitpics versus that of patronizing an escort service called the Emperors Club. The level of humiliation inflicted on your wife by an affair of the heart versus the purchase of services.


And in general, if we're talking politicians and their betrayal of their constituents rather than their families, I'd have to say financial misdeeds are worse than sexual ones.

Still, the fact that we even have to have such a calculus is kind of pathetic. I can't imagine a less stirring campaign slogan than, "It's not the sex, stupid."