Will Spitzer make list of politicians who survive scandal?

New York governor met little sympathy or support over sex scandal.

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters
Apology: Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D), with his wife, Silda, addressed the media Monday in New York.

In politics, there are scandals and then there are scandals that end careers.

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.

"Spitzer's too smart for that," says Tom Peisch, a former prosecutor and a partner of the Boston law firm Conn Kavanaugh.

The prostitution ring in question, identified in court papers as the Emperors Club VIP, arranged liaisons between wealthy men and more than 50 prostitutes in New York, Washington, Los Angeles, Miami, London, and Paris, federal prosecutors said. Four people allegedly connected to the high-end ring were arrested last week. Law-enforcement officials have indicated that the customer identified as "Client 9" in the court papers is Spitzer. Client 9 paid for a prostitute to travel across state lines from New York to Washington, according to the court documents – a possible violation of the Mann Act, which prohibits transporting people between states for immoral purposes.

"It is a law that is still on the books but not resorted to very much," says Mr. Peisch. "I don't think there will be any prosecution under these circumstances."

Even if the governor is not prosecuted, he may be too damaged politically to stay in office, experts say. He was unpopular even before Monday's stunning news.

In what became known as "Trooper-Gate," Spitzer's staff was accused of using state police officers to spy on the state's Senate majority leader, Joseph Bruno. Staff members leaked information about Senator Bruno's use of state-owned aircraft. Bruno fought back by saying he was on state business. The dispute ultimately led some of Spitzer's top aides to resign.

"Everyone likes Joe Bruno; you are not going to throw Joe Bruno out," says pollster John Zogby of Zogby International in Utica, N.Y. "It was the beginning of the downfall of Spitzer."

The governor's approval ratings began to plummet soon thereafter. Most polls show him in the upper 30s, says Lee Miringoff of the Marist Institute of Public Opinion. "He does not have a reservoir of public opinion to fall back on right now."

Last year, Spitzer caused a stir when he unveiled plans to issue driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. "It created sufficient uproar that he pulled the idea," says Mr. Miringoff.

Some longtime political analysts say Spitzer has cut corners in the past. Many of his cases against Wall Street wrongdoers were built on the threat of political indictment and the use of strategic leaks to bolster press coverage, according to Ms. Masters. "He cut corners in a way a true purist wouldn't," she says. During his first run for attorney general, his father's real estate company funneled money into Spitzer's campaign using questionable methods.

"He was never called on it," says Fred Siegel, a political analyst at Cooper Union in New York. "That may have contributed to the sense that he could get away with just about anything."

Even if a politician survives a scandal, his administration can be weakened. After the Lewinsky scandal, Mr. Clinton was distracted by the barrage of negative press and his defense against impeachment.

"One can argue his effectiveness as president was seriously reduced," says Kenneth Sherrill, a Hunter College professor of political science. "He served his term out, but he and his party were severely wounded."

If Spitzer does resign, he would be succeeded by Lt. Gov. David Paterson, who would be the first black governor of New York and the first legally blind governor of any state.

Research librarians Leigh Montgomery and John Aubrey contributed to this report.

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