Column: Rebounds typically follow sex scandals

AP News
Posted: May 06, 2013 3:28 AM

WASHINGTON (AP) — The philandering Mark Sanford and the sexting Anthony Weiner are running on redemption.

Based on the comebacks attempted by plenty of other politicians, athletes and celebrities felled by scandal, the strategy just may work.

To a certain degree, it already has: Both men are back in the national political spotlight just a few short years after their dalliances led many observers to declare their careers over. Chalk up their rebounds thus far to a conflicted public that initially revels in the sagas, then segues to outrage before ultimately forgiving personal indiscretions and allowing people to reinvent themselves.

Even so, fully winning back the public's trust after lying often proves more difficult. Particularly now, when people generally report having little faith in their elected leaders and not much confidence in the institutions where they serve.

Not that the scandal-scarred don't try to get over that hurdle. They attempt as much by acknowledging — and apologizing for — their faults.

"None of us goes through life without mistakes. But in their wake, we can learn a lot about grace, a God of second chances and be the better for it," Sanford says in a campaign TV ad in his race to return to Congress.

The former South Carolina governor, who won the Republican nomination for his old seat in Congress, wants people to have faith in him after he had an extramarital affair while in office in 2009 with an Argentine woman and falsely told people he was hiking on the Appalachian Trail when he disappeared for days, it turned out, to visit his mistress in South America.

In New York, the coincidentally named Weiner is flirting with a mayoral candidacy two years after he tweeted a picture of his underwear-clad crotch and then claimed his Twitter account had been hacked. When more pictures surfaced, the married Weiner acknowledged exchanging inappropriate messages with several women, and resigned from Congress.

Recently, he's re-emerged, with a new account on the very technology that ensnared him in scandal.

"To some degree, it's now or maybe never for me, in terms of running for something," Weiner said in a long and candid interview in The New York Times Magazine. "Also, I want to ask people to give me a second chance."

And why wouldn't they?

This country has proven willing to do just that for others whose indiscretions were arguably more severe.

America has a forgive-and-mostly-forget mentality when it comes to sex scandals. That partly can be explained by the inherent tension in this country over matters that once were typically personal but now often become public. In the Internet age, the inundated public barely even blinks at intimate details of life. And the media is prone to temporary feeding frenzies over whatever's trending online.

Here's the conflict:

—People tell pollsters they want politicians, celebrities and athletes to be authentic. Digital technology like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube makes it easier for those in the limelight to appear more real than ever by closing the distance between themselves and the public. Yet, their fans also lambaste them — often mercilessly — when they mess up.

—People also tend to hold politicians and others to a higher moral standard. Yet, no matter the title or the position or the career, everyone is fallible.

—People tend to chastise the media for digging into the private lives of public figures. Yet, they also can't seem to get enough of live-action reality TV chronicling the downfall of someone on top.

—People — and the media — usually are quick to call a career doomed when someone in the spotlight is tainted by a sex scandal. Yet, they often can't get enough of the spectacle of the disgraced attempting a comeback.

Perhaps the biggest turnarounds came from Bill Clinton and his one-time nemesis Newt Gingrich.

The Democratic president was impeached by the House in 1998 — but acquitted by the Senate — after a sexual relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Fifteen years later, he's not just enormously popular, but he's also seen as a world leader on global issues. At the same time, former House Speaker Gingrich — who engaged in an extramarital affair with a congressional employee while pushing the GOP-controlled House to impeach Clinton — went on to build a lucrative consulting business and make a serious run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012.

Others found their careers sidetracked but not derailed entirely.

Republican David Vitter was identified as a prostitution ring client but went on to win a second term as a senator from Louisiana in 2010 and remains in office today. Democrat Barney Frank, the openly gay former congressman from Massachusetts, served for two more decades after he admitted to a relationship with a male prostitute in 1989.

Hollywood and the sports world are filled with similar comebacks. Think Rob Lowe, the "Brat Pack" actor who rebounded from a 1989 sex-tape scandal to star in TV and movies. Or, more recently, Tiger Woods, who returned to golfing glory after his marriage collapsed — and career teetered — in 2010 following revelations the year before of multiple extramarital affairs.

Perhaps one reason the public is so quick to offer redemption is that politicians as a whole aren't expected to be ethical or honest. Gallup's polling consistently shows people think House members are about as honest as car salesmen, with senators and governors faring only slightly better.

Of course, there are crash-and-burn examples, too.

Arguably the biggest: John Edwards, the former senator and Democratic presidential candidate, who cheated on his cancer-stricken wife while offering himself on the campaign trail as a devoted family man. Later it came out that he'd lied about fathering a child with his mistress. Now he's a political pariah, raising his two young kids in North Carolina and absent from public life.

Former Nevada Sen. John Ensign, a Republican, admitted in June 2009 that he'd had an extramarital affair with a former member of his campaign staff. He resigned much later, in the midst of a Senate Ethics Committee investigation looking into whether he covered up the affair. No longer a public servant, he returned last year to his previous career of being a veterinarian.

Those who fall off the map completely after such a scandal tend to be the exceptions these days.

Consider that former Gen. David Petraeus is attempting to rebound in mere months. He abruptly resigned last fall from his CIA directorship after acknowledging an extramarital affair with his female biographer. Now he's joining The University of Southern California's faculty and the City University of New York as a visiting professor, while also carefully wading back into public life.

So what does all this add up to?

Perhaps it's this: That despite an initial pile of political obituaries by a horse race-obsessed media and calls by the scandal-hungry public for a full accounting of who-knew-what-when, sex scandals in modern America usually don't end careers — political or otherwise. Typically, it's just a matter of time before the fallen attempt to rise again — and an underdog-loving public gives them a second chance.


EDITOR'S NOTE — Liz Sidoti is the national politics editor for The Associated Press. Follow her on Twitter: