July 14, 2009

Political sex scandals a nonpartisan affair

By Kristi Keck

If there’s one thing Democrats and Republicans have in common, it’s sex scandals.

No matter which party the philanderer belongs to, the public wants all the juicy details, as evidenced most recently by the public’s fascination with South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford’s Argentine travels.

“That’s just prurience,” said Sally Quinn, a longtime Washington journalist and columnist. She’s married to former Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee.

“Sex sells and everybody’s interested in sex, so when there’s a sex scandal, it’s got everything — you’re talking about sex, you’re talking about power, and in a lot of cases, money is involved. You are talking about how the mighty have fallen,” she said.

Politicians’ misdeeds date back to the beginning of politics, but the media’s role as watchdog over their sex lives is relatively recent.

“In the past, these things were never even covered. [President Kennedy] got a totally free ride,” said Paul Slansky, author of “The Little Quiz Book of Big Political Sex Scandals.” “I think what really happened is that after Watergate, the press discovered that there was gold there — to examine the politicians’ lives.” Time.com: A little quiz on big sex scandals

During the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s, many details of then-President Richard Nixon’s private life came out, and the public devoured the minutiae with voracious fervor. But, Slansky said, when the Republican president resigned in 1974, there was suddenly a void in the expanding world of tabloid news.

The void was short-lived because, just two months later, along came Rep. Wilbur Mills and the “Argentine Firecracker.” Lessons learned from past political scandals »

Mills, a Democrat from Arkansas and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, was stopped on a speeding violation in October 1974. Riding in the car with him was stripper Fanne Foxe, known as the “Argentine Firecracker.”

When police pulled Mills over, the stripper fled and jumped into the Potomac River tidal basin. Mills won re-election the next month, but then appeared apparently drunk in a club where Foxe was performing. Democrats expressed their displeasure, and Mills resigned his leadership post. He didn’t seek another term, bringing an end to his 38-year career in the House.

“[Mills was] hardly a sexy guy and hardly a guy anyone in the country really cared about, but it was just such a sensational and insane story. I think of that one as kind of the first sex scandal of the modern era,” Slansky said.

In the decades since Mills’ downfall, dozens of politicians have followed in his missteps. In some cases — like that of Democratic President Bill Clinton and Republican Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana — the guilty parties are able to overcome their dalliances. Recent political sex scandals »

But for others — like Democratic New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer (Client No. 9) or sext-messaging Rep. Mark Foley, a Republican from Florida — a political scandal can be a death sentence for one’s career.

At times, the politicians bring the mockery upon themselves. Take Gary Hart, for example, who was considered the front-runner for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination.

After allegations of an affair surfaced, he challenged the media to follow his every move, assuring them that “they’ll be very bored.”

But what he assured was that he would get caught.

Shortly after he dared the media to catch him doing anything wrong, a picture surfaced of a 29-year-old woman sitting on his lap aboard a boat called — believe it or not — Monkey Business. It was Donna Rice, the same woman reporters had spotted leaving his house while his wife was out of town. One week later, Hart abandoned the race for the White House.

“I think as each scandal happens, it becomes almost more of an entertainment than a disappointment, except for the people who are close to them,” said Quinn. “And I think that people are much more cynical these days, much less inclined to revere people in high office than they used to be.”

The scandals have become fuel for late-night talk shows and a pastime for those killing time online.

After former Idaho Republican Sen. Larry Craig‘s 2007 arrest on suspicion of lewd conduct at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, bored Web surfers took to the Internet to re-enact their interpretation of his “wide stance.”

Similarly, shortly after e-mails between Sanford and his Argentine mistress were printed, people went online to post their dramatic interpretations of the letters, further humiliating the Republican governor (and his family).

But with each laugh comes another bruise to the credibility of the fallen and another speed bump on the road to recovery. “I think there’s an image-tarnishing element to it that never goes away,” Slansky said.

While each scandal has its own quirky twists, Quinn said there’s one common thread in the key to survival.

“I really do think the bottom line is toughing it out — you have to absolutely have the thickest skin there ever was — and you just have to say, ‘Sorry, I’m not leaving,’ ” she said.

“You can try to win back the people if you want, but the only way you can do that is to keep your mouth shut and work really hard to do your job.”