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July 31, 2014

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Where’s the shame? Scandal doesn’t always end political careers

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AP file

John Ensign, unable to dodge questions about an extramarital dalliance and facing pressure from his own party, finds himself in an awkward position as he attempts to salvage his political career.

Political Scandals

South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford wipes his tears as he admitted to having an affair during a news conference Wednesday, June 24, 2009, and was the reason why he was in Argentina.  He also announce that he is resigning as chairman of the Republican Governors Association. Launch slideshow »

Sex. Drugs. Cheating on a spouse.

Those words used to add up to shame. Put them in the same sentence as a politician’s name, and they ended careers.

Not anymore. The latest batch of unlikely back-from-the-swamp hopefuls are Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer. Weiner resigned his New York City congressional seat two years ago after revelations that he’d tweeted a sexually suggestive picture of himself to a woman who was following him on Twitter. Spitzer left the state’s governorship in 2008 after reports surfaced that federal investigators had tagged him as “Client 9,” soliciting high-end prostitutes.

Each now has a decent shot at a big prize: Weiner New York’s Democratic mayoral nomination, Spitzer the city’s comptroller job. Spitzer led his closest rival by 9 percentage points in a Wall Street Journal-NBC 4-Marist poll released Thursday.

They join the growing roster of comebacks, or at least serious attempts, by scandal-tarred politicians:

• Mark Sanford was elected to a South Carolina congressional seat in May, after admitting an affair in 2009 that resulted in the then-governor paying a large ethics fine and led state lawmakers to consider impeaching him.

• Newt Gingrich made a decent run at the presidency last year, even as details resurfaced about how his affairs had helped break up his first two marriages.

• Marion Barry, convicted of cocaine possession in 1990, was re-elected as the mayor of Washington four years later and still serves on its city council.

The sagas of these once-and-again-mighty political figures mirror the changing standards of behavior in society and American politics.

“The norms of society have changed,” said Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth College expert on political scandal.

If there’s a line of demarcation when shame lost its status as a poison dart for a political career, it came in the late 1990s. President Bill Clinton’s dalliance with Monica Lewinsky was graphically described day after day. Clinton was impeached but not removed from office, and he left the presidency in 2001 with stellar approval numbers. He now is more personally popular than any other living former president.

“We have a society that’s more open to things that are not like us,” said Evans Witt, the president of Princeton Survey Research Associates. “We had always been comfortable if someone looks like me and acts like somebody I know. We’ve gotten beyond that.”

Exhibit A is President Barack Obama. Not to mention members of Congress who are openly gay.

At the same time, behavior once regarded as deviant or suspicious became commonplace. Divorce, let alone sexual affairs, were no longer career-killers. Neither was admission of drug use. Reports of such actions lost their ability to shock.

“Fifty years ago if you had an affair, it wasn’t covered,” noted John Geer, a co-director of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions at Vanderbilt University.

Now it’s not only covered, but such news also is so widespread that the public often becomes indifferent to matters that once would have jolted it. Baseball stars used steroids to jack up their power numbers, but the sport keeps thriving. Celebrities have children out of wedlock without tarnishing their images. Children have access well before bedtime to situation comedies whose plots revolve around who’s sleeping with whom.

With this drumbeat of what was once considered erratic or even indecent now routine, it’s hardly difficult for wayward politicians to rehabilitate.

They also have an advantage: The political system has become increasingly sophisticated, and they know how to master it. More money is needed, and veteran politicians know how to tap it. They rely on seasoned staffs schooled in managing scandal. And the same hubris that made them think from an early age that political success was attainable fuels a confidence that they can overcome darn near anything.

That said, lines remain that can’t be crossed. Violent behavior. Felony charges and convictions. Engaging in acts so egregious that even a public desensitized to outrage can’t stomach the details.

Since the Clinton era, a host of officeholders has succumbed. John Edwards, the Democrats’ 2004 vice presidential nominee, is probably done. Not only was there an affair, but also a child and a cover-up, all happening as his popular wife was dying of cancer.

Former Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, a fierce conservative, endured the public sting of being arrested in 2007 on suspicion of lewd conduct in a Minnesota airport men’s restroom. Florida Rep. Mark Foley resigned his seat in 2006 after reports that he’d exchanged sexually charged messages with a teenage page.

And former Nevada Sen. John Ensign resigned his post in May 2011, nearly two years after his affair with his campaign treasurer — who also happened to be the wife of his chief of staff — came to light. The Federal Election Commission this year fined Ensign $32,000 for breaking campaign finance laws related to the affair and its aftermath. After his resignation, Ensign resumed his veterinary practice.

Yet Sanford survived. Barry remains a Washington councilman. Conservatives Louisiana Sen. David Vitter, who once solicited prostitutes, and Tennessee Rep. Scott DesJarlais remain members of Congress. A physician, DesJarlais was fined by Tennessee’s medical discipline board for sexual relationships with two patients, and court testimony reportedly indicated that he’d encouraged his ex-wife to get abortions.

They all won after the revelations. Part of their success is that they ran in the right place. All four sought post-scandal office in heavily partisan areas.

They also succeeded because they generally asked for forgiveness and said that their troubles were behind them. Voters generally felt “it happened in the past, it’s done with,” South Carolina Republican consultant David Woodard said.

Information from Sun reporter Karoun Demirjian was used in this report.

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