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Politics & Government

What Makes A Sex Scandal Survivable?


As we just heard, Eliot Spitzer is hardly the only politician to attempt a political comeback after a sex scandal. In addition to Anthony Wiener, there is also former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford. He won a seat in Congress this year, after famously slipping off to Argentina for an extra-marital affair.

NPR's Ari Shapiro looks at what makes some political sex scandals survivable.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Thirty years ago, Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards joked that the only way he could lose his election would be if he were caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy. He was caught with neither. But a few decades later, another Louisiana politician came close to that line. Senator David Vitter's phone number showed up in a D.C. madam's records. He'd been hiring prostitutes.

SENATOR DAVID VITTER: I am completely responsible. And I'm so very, very sorry.

SHAPIRO: A few years later, Vitter won reelection. He's still a Senator today.

The rebound from a sex scandal is not exactly a proud tradition in American politics, but it sure is a long one. Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton.

JULIAN ZELIZER: In the 19th century there's the famous stories of Andrew Jackson and Grover Cleveland, both of whom survived sex scandals. And you can fast forward to contemporary history.

PRESIDENT WILLIAM CLINTON: Indeed, I did have a relationship with Ms. Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong.

SHAPIRO: President Clinton was impeached for lying about sex with an intern. A few years later, he left office with a 66 percent approval rating. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Four years after South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford said this...

MARK SANFORD: I hurt a lot of different folks.

SHAPIRO: He was back on the political stage, saying this.

SANFORD: I am going to be trying to be the best congressman that I could have ever been...

SHAPIRO: The U.S. likes to think of itself as a puritanical country, tutting at Italy and the rampant sexual exploits of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, shaking our heads at France, where the funeral for President Francois Mitterrand placed the mistress next to the wife.

ZELIZER: But given that a lot of these politicians survive, we might not be as puritanical as we think.

SHAPIRO: Julian Zelizer

ZELIZER: This is a country that loves to watch sex on television, watch sex on movies, watch sex on the Internet, and I think at some level they're comfortable with the sexuality of politicians, even though they might yell and scream when these stories emerge.

SHAPIRO: That's been true for a long time, but it may be more so now. Allison Dagnes says that's partly because of the media. She's a political scientist at Pennsylvania's Shippensburg University.

ALLISON DAGNES: There's now so much more media out there reporting on these things. There's so much coverage. And there are so many more ways to get news about it, we're hearing about it a lot more often than we did before.

SHAPIRO: And that normalizes these events - it makes them seem more common, less shocking. Still, not every sex scandal is survivable. Former Idaho Senator Larry Craig, who solicited sex in an airport men's room, is probably done with politics. Same with John Edwards, who fathered a child with a campaign staffer. There are lots of reasons for that: hypocrisy about gay issues in the Craig case, corrupt use of campaign funds in the Edwards' case.

And Paul Apostolidis, of Whitman College, says one important factor is the wife. Elizabeth Edwards has since died of cancer.

PAUL APOSTOLIDIS: First of all, he had so manifestly betrayed her. And she was just not supporting him in the same way that Spitzer's wife did for him. So, make no mistake, I think the woman who is the partner in these scandals has a really powerful role to play.

SHAPIRO: Spitzer and his wife stuck together. And political scientist Allison Dagnes says Spitzer made another smart move in the last few years. He distracted the search engines.

DAGNES: When you Google Eliot Spitzer, other things will come up, like his show on CNN, his books that he has written, which have been dry policy books. There have been other things that have taken the attention span and taken the place in that important Google search.

SHAPIRO: Today's top google hits for Spitzer do involve the words disgraced, prostitution and sex scandal. But also, comeback, and forgiveness.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.