Sex, scandal, survival

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- The stained blue dress. The wide stance. The trip aboard the Monkey Business.

History is replete with images from prominent officials caught in sex scandals, and New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer now makes the list.

Spitzer, an aggressive former prosecutor dubbed the "sheriff of Wall Street," will also be known as Client 9, the moniker appearing in federal documents that allege that he hired a $1,000-an-hour call girl to meet him last month at a Washington hotel.

As Spitzer weighs his next steps, past incidents offer clues about how fallout from personal scandals can be managed and whether they become career-killers. Politicians who survive, despite the damage to their reputations, come clean early, seek forgiveness and are able to ride it out because they have a strong political base or find a scapegoat for their problem.

For Spitzer, who is reported to be considering resigning, the future looks more ominous. His alleged transgressions go to the very heart of his image as an elected official: an unyielding crusader against corrupt behavior, especially when it is committed by those in high places.

Many public officials in similar situations who get caught breaking the law or violating the morality they espouse are forced to return to the private sector or eventually get sent to prison.

For those who are able to remain in government, successful image-repair requires expressing "mortification" over one's actions and laying out a plan of corrective action, said Joseph R. Blaney, a communications professor at Illinois State University and co-author of The Clinton Scandals and the Politics of Image Restoration.

"By and large, when politicians express these sentiments, people will forgive them, they will move on, and they can repair their images," Blaney said.

President Bill Clinton survived the Monica Lewinsky scandal first by making the sexual allegations seem trivial compared with important matters such as health care and Middle East peace, Blaney said.

"When such a time came around that Clinton admitted that he was busted ... already people were convinced that this was strictly a private matter," Blaney said.

However, Clinton did not escape impeachment - he was only the second president in history to be charged - and his second term was diminished by scandal, though he did emerge with his popularity largely intact. Spitzer took a similar approach in his brief public statement this week, saying that politics was "about ideas, the public good and doing what is best for the state of New York."

But New York's Democratic governor faces a steep challenge. As the state's attorney general from 1999 to 2006, he fostered a crime-buster image, mainly by going after wrongdoing by big names in the financial community, but in part by prosecuting prostitution rings.

"One of the key issues in stories like this is hypocrisy," said Mark Stencel, a deputy publisher of Governing magazine and co- author of Peep Show: Media and Politics in the Age of Scandal. "You most often see it in the case of politicians who make family values a key issues in their campaigns."

In recent years, several high-profile Republican officials and conservative leaders have been stained by hypocrisy charges after their sexual proclivities came to light.

Rep. Mark Foley of Florida, who promoted laws cracking down on sexual predators, resigned his seat in 2006 after published accounts of explicit e-mail and instant message exchanges with male congressional pages who were minors.

Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, a prominent social conservative, made a public apology - with his wife by his side - after his phone number appeared on a list of clients of the so-called D.C. Madam last year.

Democrats seem to emerge from sexual scandals more easily than Republicans, said S. Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington, citing the case of Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, repeatedly re-elected despite being reprimanded in 1990 for his relationship with a gay friend who was running an escort service from Frank's Washington home.

Polling shows, Lichter said, that "a majority of Democrats would support a politician even if he is having an affair while married. A majority of Republicans would not."

The nature of the job also affects whether politicians can continue their careers, said Lichter, another Peep Show co-author.

Republican Sen. Larry E. Craig of Idaho said he will leave the Senate when his current term ends after it was revealed that he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge stemming from a gay-sex sting in a Minneapolis airport restroom. Craig said that his wide stance resulted in his making contact with an undercover officer in the adjoining stall.

But Gov. James E. McGreevey of New Jersey resigned shortly after acknowledging that he was gay and had an affair with a male lover whom he had appointed to a high-ranking state job. McGreevey, a Democrat, was married at the time.

"In terms of survival, it's tougher for governors than senators, because you are exercising an executive function," Lichter said. "A governor is running the state and dealing with the political opposition. You can't manage in that kind of uproar."

In Maryland, however, former Gov. Marvin Mandel was re-elected in 1974 after his wife kicked him out of the Governor's Mansion when he declared his love for another woman - whom he would later marry. Mandel was convicted of corruption charges and went to prison, though the conviction was reversed.

Former Rep. Robert E. Bauman, a conservative Republican from Maryland's Eastern Shore, lost his House seat in 1980 after his arrest for soliciting sex from a 16-year- old male prostitute and subsequently disclosed that he was a homosexual.

Timing of disclosures can also affect their impact, experts say.

Former Rep. Robert L. Livingston Jr., the House speaker- designate and Louisiana Republican, announced his resignation from Congress in December 1998 on the day Clinton was impeached. Livingston's extramarital affairs were about to be the subject of an article by Hustler publisher Larry Flynt.

But news of former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich's affair during the Clinton investigations came only after he had resigned, and was hardly mentioned when he was contemplating a White House run last year.

Former Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado abandoned a Democratic presidential run in 1987 after reporters tracked the married candidate staying overnight at his Capitol Hill apartment with an attractive young blonde, Donna Rice, and a photograph surfaced of Hart and Rice on a fishing boat, the Monkey Business.

Spitzer, who had been mentioned as a future national candidate, endured a rocky first year in office and is said to have few close friends in Albany, the state capital.

"If your family sticks with you, and you have a strong enough political base to lean on, you can get through a lot," said Stencel, the Governing deputy publisher.

Many of the facts of the Spitzer case have yet to come out, and there is speculation that he might resign as part of a negotiated settlement with federal authorities investigating the prostitution ring.

david.nitkin@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
63°