Democratic New York Congressman Anthony Weiner decided to take some photos of himself unburdened by cloth, send them to a few girls he met online, then complain that his phone was hacked when the details dribbled out in the press. After a few days of strident denial, he called a press conference to confess to everything. While Weiner faces a possible Congressional ethics investigation for conduct unbecoming in using the finest congressional equipment taxpayer money can buy to blast the glories of his manhood across cyberspace, it’s worth noting that politicians have been found guilty of using their public office for much worse and still have managed to survive. What factors determine severity and survival of American political sex scandals nowadays?
There’s often a disconnect in these cases between intensity of media attention on the case and any outrage among voters. So when the 24/7 cable news media zooms in on Weiner, everything appears much larger than in real life – kind of like the photos he took of himself. In a classic historical example, Democratic Presidential candidate Gary Hart quickly dropped out of the 1988 race when the National Enquirer ran a photo of him balancing Donna Rice on his knee on a boat called “Monkey Business” behind his wife’s back, yet polls suggested that a majority of Americans didn’t support political disqualification based on adultery. Often a scandal can be waited out: viewers will grow tired, ratings will drop, news directors will instruct their staff to move on to other topics. Weiner has the option of simply stiffening up and soldiering on.
Another factor that determines the seriousness of a sex scandal is whether or not sex actually took place. Granted we’re now in the age of social media where you can be reamed out for infidelity by a significant other for posting a compliment on someone’s FaceBook page, or by texting them a sideways smiley that’s deemed suggestive, but through all the media hysteria, would it not be prudent to ask if this “sex scandal” actually involves sex? Best I can tell, Weiner got it on with a mobile phone and a computer.
Lying when caught out typically makes matters worse, as we’ve seen with both this Weiner affair and the other one involving Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. Weiner, like Clinton, won’t be punished for the sex, but for having lied about it. In all cases, it’s best to just swallow the embarrassment and own it. Come out with the fact that you’re insatiable, and would appreciate a little privacy in being so. That’s what I like to call the “Berlusconi Defence”. The Italian Prime Minister survived years of “bunga-bunga” orgies and a flamboyantly public sex life simply by making it a non-issue – until the law did because an underage bunga-bunger crashed the party.
Speaking of which, both political and physical geography determine sex scandal survival. In other words, if things don’t work out for Weiner in America, I recommend that he trade his social media exploits for some much less sexy online language learning adventures, then take his act to France or Italy. He will suffer from initial mockery for being a politico-sexual lightweight, but then it’ll all be smooth sailing. Europeans have collectively considered the multiple infidelities of almost every elected representative from Jacques Chirac to Silvio Berlusconi and have asked themselves in each case if these men’s cheating on their significant other means they’re likely to screw over the electorate. The answer: Yeah, probably – but they’re politicians. The scum de la scum! Voters aren’t electing husbands – thank goodness. Europeans just seem to be more realistic about what politicians represent and what to expect of them.
As we saw in the Clinton case, a battle-axe spouse who looks like she’s ready to murder the transgressor with her eyes while he’s snivelling out a mea culpa can also be useful in assuring sex scandal survival. “Okay, looks like she’s got this covered,” they think. “Maybe we can move on to other things.”
A final thing that endangers a politician’s chance of surviving any kind of sex scandal: photos. I realize it’s easier to convey a thousand words with a quick snap of one’s appendage, but it’s always best to slow down and pound out those thousand words one by one instead. Not because letters would ultimately be any less damaging in proving guilt, but because they take a lot more time and effort for people to absorb and blow back out through their nose along with a mouthful of their morning coffee. Many won’t bother. Letters also reduce the chance that Bill Clinton, your wife, or other important people in your personal or professional life will have an unexpected walk-on part in your pornographic montage, as was the case with Weiner when he captured framed portraits of them in his shots.
May this advice serve as wisdom to any future Weiners as they sit in public office revving up their equipment.