Sex scandal consequences ain't what they used to be
New York City's politics has now gotten more titillating. First came news that Anthony Weiner, the Democrat whose crotch-shot sexting to a woman he never met led to his resignation from Congress, was running for mayor. Now comes the news that former New York Gov. Elliot Spitzer, who resigned due to his involvement in a prostitution scandal, is running for city Comptroller.
New Yorker satirist Andy Borowitz couldn't resist doing a fake news story about former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who a Milan court sentenced to seven years after finding him guilty of paying for sex with an underage prostitute and abusing his office, with the headline: "BERLUSCONI MULLS NEW YORK CITY RACE."
Hey, the way things are going, it could happen.
Long gone are the days when then-New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller's 1962 divorce from his wife and his remarriage shocked many, lost him droves of women-voter support and destroyed his early 1963 status as the front-runner for the 1964 Republican nomination. By the late 90s it was clear there had been a shift in American society and culture: despite the Monica Lewinsky scandal and impeachment. Bill Clinton rose in the polls, left office with the highest end-term rating (68 percent) of any President, and remains one of the country's most popular political figures.
Sex scandals are now becoming ongoing reality shows: the set up (the good career), the fall (the tearful apology), the short-term consequences (resignation) -- and the resurrection (running for office again).
Much of the media was wrong earlier this year in predicting South Carolina's voters would tell Mark Sanford to take a hike when he ran for a House seat in a special election. Sanford resigned as Governor when it turned out that when he was missing for 6 days in 2009 he wasn't hiking on the Appalachian Trail as he said, but visiting his girl friend in Argentina. Critics and some in the media considered Sanford shameless in the way he framed his affair and trumpeted his happy life with his new wife, his Argentinean "soul mate." Endemol Productions couldn't produce as compelling a reality show -- and The Mark Sanford Show got boffo ratings (he won).
Writes The Daily Beast's Political Director John Avlon: "The sad fact is that in our celebrity-driven society, sex scandals guarantee that a politician will rise above the humdrum of campaigns full of earnest legislators. The press is eager to cover the soap opera, and the public seems eager to engage in the real-life telenovela. Now the clichÃ©d old rule of Hollywood—there's no such thing as bad press—seems to apply to public service. What could possibly go wrong?"
The question is: so where does it end? Time's Mark Halperin on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" asked Spitzer: "Are there any things people in elective office, a high office like governor of New York, could do, that involved law breaking, lying to the public, that you would consider as a voter disqualifying? Or nothing's disqualifying if a person comes back and says look at what I've done for the last five years, look at my great ideas?"
Spitzer basically replied that he'll leave that up for the public to decide. And many think he can win. Meanwhile, polls suggest Weiner is catching on and you just KNOW the New York tabloid headline you'll see if he does: "Weiner Rises Again." Weiner-Spitzer wins would be a sign of how impotent 20th century standards have become in today's seemingly shrugging, reality-show-loving 21st century world.
Joe Gandelman is a veteran journalist who wrote for newspapers overseas and in the United States. He has appeared on cable news show political panels and is Editor-in-Chief of The Moderate Voice, an Internet hub for independents, centrists and moderates.