I may be wrong, but I believe it was the famously polysyllabic William F. Buckley who, satiric tongue implanted firmly in ironic cheek wrote, "It seems to me the only two sins that should disqualify a man from holding public office are pederasty and virginity." Buckley's point (if indeed, it was the polymathic founder of the modern conservative movement who said it) was not that murderers, adulterers, arsonists, extortionists and other miscreants and sinners should get a free pass when it comes to running for or holding office, but rather, that we spend far too much time obsessing over the private lives of public people. And mind you, Buckley (1925-2008) spent the lion's share of his career writing, publishing and opining prior to the invention of the Internet and the twenty-four-hour-a-day news cycle.
It makes one wonder what Buckley's take would be on the sins and assorted failings of Mark Sanford, Anthony Weiner, John Edwards, David Vitter, Larry Craig, John Ensign, Bill Clinton et al. Would he -- a man many considered more rigorously Catholic than the Pope -- have condemned them out of hand for their sexual indiscretions, obfuscations and downright lies? Or would he have given them a pass, believing that "public policies trump private predilections." Would Buckley -- like the citizens of South Carolina's 1st Congressional District -- have voted to return Mark Sanford to public life even though Sanford:
- Cheated on his wife and family;
- Left the country to be with his Argentine mistress;
- Upon resurfacing lied to the world, claiming that he was "hiking the Appalachian Trail";
- Was sued by his ex-wife (and former campaign manager) for violating terms of their divorce agreement; and
- Had his candidacy disavowed by the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee.
It would seem that in South Carolina's First District -- as indeed, in other parts of the country -- the sin of adultery is far less egregious than the sin of having the letter "D" after your name. Just ask Louisiana Senator David Vitter who, in 2007 was linked to a prostitution ring, publicly apologized, only to be overwhelmingly reelected (57%-38%) to another six-year term in 2010. Forgiveness is a great thing -- for Democrats as well. Consider New York Representative Charles Rangel, who in 2010 was found by members of the House Ethics Committee to have committed numerous ethics violations, and then, two years later, captured 91% of his district's vote to win reelection to a 13th term. And then there is President Bill Clinton who, despite having suffered through an embarrassing nationally-television impeachment proceeding, emerged largely unscathed and today, nearly 15 years later, is easily our most widely-admired former chief executive.
This is certainly not to say or imply that politicians are immune to public judgment. Indeed, many are not. Consider the following half-dozen who, once their sins, crimes or transgressions became known, either resigned, were defeated for reelection, or were tried, convicted and sentenced to prison:
- Former Louisiana Rep. William Jefferson (D): In 2009, Jefferson was sentenced to 13 years in prison for "using his office to corruptly solicit bribes." This is the chap who hid $90,000 in his freezer. Today he is an inmate at a low-security prison in Texas.
- Former Nevada Senator John Ensign (R): In 2011, he resigned his office in the midst of an ethics investigation probing an affair he had with a top former staffer's wife. Today, he is once again a practicing veterinarian in Las Vegas.
- Former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer (D): In 2008, Spitzer resigned his office, having been caught in a scandal linking him to a prostitution ring. His successor, David Paterson (D) also left political life under a cloud -- witness tampering and perjury.
- Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R): In 2011, DeLay was sentenced to 3 years in prison for helping Texas GOP candidates gain access to corporate funds -- a clear violation of Texas law. Although not yet incarcerated (he is still appealing the verdict), DeLay remains widely popular in conservative circles.
- Former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R): Need one say more?
Which brings us to former New York Representative Anthony Weiner (D) who, like the aforementioned Mark Sanford, is attempting a political comeback.
Weiner, of course, is the man who just about two years ago, resigned from Congress, having humiliated himself and his new wife in the midst of a scandal concerning sexually provocative pictures sent from his Twitter account. Despite the scandal, despite the humiliation and despite the acid-tipped arrows of a thousand pundits (who can resist when the target's last name is "Weiner?") just last week, Weiner announced that he would run for Mayor of New York, a post he has coveted for nearly a decade. Although there are certainly some similarities between Weiner, Sanford and Vitter vis-à-vis the traversing of a path which leads from resignation to redemption and (in the case of both Vitter and Sanford) resurrection, there are some obvious dissimilarities. In the case of Vitter and Sanford, their sin involved covering up extra-marital relations -- in one case with prostitutes, in the other with a single mistress. The Sanford scandal also involved dramatic lies and the use of some taxpayer money. Nonetheless, Vitter's and Sanford's transgressions were essentially no different than a hundred politicians before them. (Almost every president from George Washington on has kept a mistress; more than one has fathered an illegitimate child.) In Weiner's case, despite the fact that his sin -- one pundit called it "The groin shot seen 'round the world" -- was sexless, it has a "creep factor" that Sanford's was lacking. When caught, both men responded with lies, and then edged their way into something resembling the truth, which eventually wound up in pleas for forgiveness. Whether one finds in their pleas the force of true atonement or the veneer of expediency is a judgment that everyone must make for themselves.
I am reminded of a long-ago scandal involving then-Cincinnati City Councilman Jerry Springer. Back in 1974, Springer resigned from the council after it was revealed that he had employed the services of a prostitute at a Fort Wright (KY) massage parlor. (Ironically, the check -- the CHECK! -- with which he paid the woman, eventually bounced.) Turns out that Springer was smarter than people thought. He parlayed his heightened name recognition -- and a tearful apology -- into a successful return to the City Council and eventually to the office of Mayor. This is the political strategy known as "Talk about me good, talk about me bad . . . just talk about me!"
To some extent, this is where Anthony Weiner is today. Due to his widely-publicized scandal, he possesses the most basic thing all competitive politicians need -- name recognition. He also starts out with more than $5 million in his war chest, left over from a failed mayor's race back in 2005 -- money that most candidates would be using just to get their name before the public. Weiner's overwhelming name recognition is both a plus and a minus. The minus is that when everyone knows who you are -- and what you've done -- it's next to impossible to reinvent yourself. Whether Weiner succeeds -- and I for one would likely not support his candidacy -- should be based on his ability to articulate a coherent, doable future for NYC -- and not the fact that he acted like an idiotic, childish jerk. Likewise, had I been a voter in South Carolina, there is no way I could have supported Mark Sanford . . . and not because he acted like a two-faced cad, but rather because his are the politics of mindless retrogression. You see, ideally, it should hinge on politics and policy.
When it comes to Weiner, Sanford and sin, we would do well to remember that politicians run for nomination, not beatification . . . for election, not for perfection.
©2013 Kurt F. Stone