How to Survive a Political Sex Scandal

Rachel Marsden

6/14/2011 11:42:00 AM - Rachel Marsden
Democratic New York Congressman Anthony Weiner decided to take some photos of himself minimally burdened 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. Weiner has reportedly decided to undertake a treatment program -- presumably the Tiger Woods Slut-Buster program. Can Weiner pull out of this?

There's often a disconnect in these cases between intensity of media attention and 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 dropped out of the 1988 race after 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 and felt the whole affair was overblown.

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. Whether someone who hits on babes thousands of miles away from behind a computer screen will have the courage to brave it out is another matter.

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 just by posting a compliment on someone's Facebook page or by texting them a sideways smiley, 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 only got amorous via a mobile phone and a computer.

Lying when caught typically makes matters worse, as we've seen with both the Weiner affair and the one involving Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. Weiner, like Clinton, won't be punished for infidelity, 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 Defense." 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, geography can also determine whether any given politician can survive a sex scandal. Weiner could trade his social media exploits for some much less sexy online language-learning adventures, then take his act to France or Italy. He'll suffer 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 not significantly more so than any European politician. 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 sniveling out a mea culpa can also be useful in assuring sex-scandal survival. "OK, looks like she's got this covered," voters think. "Maybe we can move on to other things."

Not doing anything sexy on Uncle Sam's dime is a good way to dodge sex accusations. Not using your public office as a shag-pad, and not using taxpayer-funded office equipment to blast your manhood across America, goes a long way in later arguing that it was all private and personal and people should butt out.

A final thing that endangers a politician's chances of surviving a sex scandal: photos.

While it may be easier to convey a thousand words with a quick snap of one's appendage, as Weiner did, it's nevertheless better to slow down and pound out those thousand words one by one. Not because letters would ultimately be any less damaging, but because they take a lot more time and effort for people to absorb and blow back out through their noses 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.