By Nick DAngelo
In 1992, news outlets labeled Bill Clinton “The Comeback Kid” for his second place finish in the New Hampshire presidential primary. However, that would not be Clinton’s last miracle comeback. Despite having to face impeachment hearings in the wake of an Oval Office sex scandal, Clinton has become one of the most admired and respected politicians of the modern era. In September, his personal approval rating stood at 69 percent, a new personal best. How do politicians remake their image? And why do some make remarkable comebacks while others languish in the humiliation of scandal?
It partially depends on the crime, not merely as a criminal offense, but as it is viewed by the public. In 2002, at the birthday party of Strom Thurmond, Senator Trent Lott suggested that America would not “have all these problems” had Thurmond been elected president in 1948. That year, Thurmond ran on the southern segregationist Dixiecrat ticket. Lott resigned as Republican Leader and left the Senate four years later. Congressman Chris Lee’s admission to posting topless photographs online prompted him to resign the same day the story broke. And who could forget Senator Larry Craig’s 2007 charge for soliciting sex in an airport bathroom? These men will never be heard from again. Their crimes were too awkward, outrageous and downright humiliating.
A politician’s ability to deal with the humiliation of scandal also plays an important role. It’s simple crisis management. Apologizing is probably a good start, although how it is done is critical. Clinton’s circle of lies in 1998 is an example of what not to do, as was Governor Jim McGreevey’s admission during a resignation press conference—with his wife standing beside him—that he had engaged in adult relations with another man. Some politicians deal with humiliation better than others. Some politicians’ careers even survive it.
Last week, rumors began to surface that Governor Eliot Spitzer might be a 2014 candidate for New York State Comptroller, creating a whirlwind of speculation. Up until a few months ago, many had expected Anthony Weiner to jump into the 2013 race for Mayor of New York City. In South Carolina, Mark Sanford, infamous for his metaphor of “climbing the Appalachian Trail” (i.e. having an extramarital affair with an Argentinean woman), is now running for Congress. Not only is he running, Sanford is the favorite to win the House seat he formerly held from 1995-2003.
This really isn’t anything new though, according to Shelby Cuomo ‘13. A senior political science and classics double major, Cuomo is writing her thesis on the juxtaposition between the sexual escapades of ancient Rome and modern America. “In almost all cultures and across time periods, politicians have engaged in extramarital affairs,” says Cuomo. “My thesis has shown that in Ancient Rome it was acceptable and legal for men to have affairs, even in the case of Julius Caesar, who slept with his closest allies’ wives.”
Even today, extramarital scandal is a pardonable offense with no political obituary necessary. “For Clinton, what I am actually finding is that this scandal may have helped bolster his image with the public,” Cuomo noted. “He remains today one of the most popular presidents of all time, along with John F. Kennedy, another infamous adulterer.” Cuomo attributes that to the portrayal of Clinton as a “real” human being capable of making mistakes in the aftermath of the affair. “Being able to relate to the president as a man with flaws may in some way make his personality more attractive to people,” Cuomo noted.
In the end, it’s not the male politicians who lose out. According to Cuomo’s research, it’s the female companions. “What is fascinating is the treatment of women in these affairs. In Ancient Rome, women who took part in affairs or who were even speculated to have taken part in an affair were immediately condemned,” says Cuomo. “This treatment is a trend that remains today. Look at Monica Lewinsky; how she was treated by society and what her legacy has become.”
It seems that, for millennia, politicians have been entrenched in scandal—and the public has been interested in it. We blame neither Caesar nor Clinton. From Suetonius to Nancy Grace, the scandals of political untouchables have fascinated the media and the public.
It’s not so much the crime, but the response that decides political fate. And like so many other instances in politics, morality may hardly play a role.