Will Spitzer make list of politicians who survive scandal?
New York governor met little sympathy or support over sex scandal.
In politics, there are scandals and then there are scandals that end careers.Skip to next paragraph
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President Bill Clinton withstood a public whipping to survive the Monica Lewinsky affair. Rep. Mark Foley (R) of Florida, though, was forced to quit in 2006 after revelations that he sent suggestive e-mails to former congressional pages.
With New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's (D) political future uncertain after reports that he patronized a prostitution ring, the unhappy history of sex and politics offers lessons about what makes some scandals survivable, and others not.
Foremost, say political pundits, sexual impropriety can end a political career if hypocrisy lies at its heart. If a politician is a known rogue, as was Mr. Clinton, his likelihood of remaining in office is better than if he is a righteous crusader for family values, as was Mr. Foley.
Then there's the counterbalancing effect of political goodwill among a wrongdoer's colleagues and the public. The deeper that reservoir, say experts, the better the chances of survival.
Finally, there's the tenor of the times. The public today is more forgiving than it was two decades ago, perhaps in part because over the years it has become inured to lax sexual behavior on the part of so many elected officials.
But even with a more tolerant or resigned public, the vital determinant of scandal survivability, say experts, is whether what one does comports with what one says.
"It's always hypocrisy that hangs you from the highest branch, because people are just outraged by it," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "You don't have to be politically active to understand the hypocrisy factor, and that's what makes it so powerful."
Few political analysts give Governor Spitzer, once known as the "Sheriff of Wall Street," much chance of riding out this scandal, because of his history. In his former role as New York's attorney general, he sued gas stations for price gouging, dairies for inflating the cost of milk, and mutual funds and Wall Street brokers for using deceptive practices to fleece customers.
People who know Spitzer well say he no doubt understands the difficult situation he's created for himself, given his long history of pointing out others' foibles.
"He's one of the most realistic guys I've come across when it comes to talking about their political chances," says Brooke Masters, author of "Spoiling for a Fight: The Political Rise of Eliot Spitzer." "If he thinks it's going to be embarrassing, he isn't going to stay."
Whatever his decision, Spitzer may not actually be charged with a crime. Users of prostitution services are seldom charged, and that's even more true in federal cases, such as the one that has engulfed Spitzer, say former prosecutors. The case came to attention after the Internal Revenue Service noticed suspicious transfers of money that it thought may point to money laundering. That's what prompted the initial tip to the FBI. But former prosecutors say it would be difficult to prove money laundering even though Spitzer allegedly tried to disguise his payments.