Rules for rogues



A blogworthy version of my Sunday print column:

Never before have so many politicians seemed so fixated on their stimulus packages.

Or maybe the tally has risen lately simply because no secret is safe in our transparent culture. Maybe that helps to explain why we know about John Edwards and his videographer, David Vitter and his hookers, Eliot Spitzer as Client Number Nine, Larry Craig and his men’s room footsie, Vito Fossella and his love child, John Ensign and his trysts with a senior aide’s wife, Mark Sanford crying in Argentina on the taxpayer’s dime in violation of his "fiscally conservative"’s quite a list, even if we leave off Newt Gingrich and Mark Foley and long-ago miscreants like congressman Wilbur Mills, whose gal pal, a stripper known as the Argentine Firecracker, took an imprompu dip in Washington's Tidal Basin back in '74. (Clearly, there's something about these Argentine women.)

They've all done time in penance purgatory. But why did they misbehave, to the point of risking or wrecking their careers? Duh. Because humans are complicated. Because, as a sociologist named Pepper Schwartz told me during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, "politicians live in a highly adrenalized environment." Because a lot of guys in public life are insecure attention junkies who get drunk on themselves. And if we're just talking about the roguish straight guys, there is also the wordly wisdom of Art Hockstader, the fictional president in Gore Vidal's 1964 movie, The Best Man. When informed that one of his would-be successors was in fact a womanizer, Hockstader merely shrugged and said, "Lots of men need lots of women."

In other words, the rogues will always be with us, so let’s try to be merciful. I figure that if these people are going to stray, they’ll need tips on how to mitigate the political damage:

Control the story on day one. Ensign, the Nevada Republican senator, made the smart move by holding a press conference. He got the chance to look forthright; he ‘fessed up to bedding down before the cuckolded husband could get his story out. But Ensign was plumb lucky that he got to go first. The husband had previously emailed the dirty details to Fox News – and Fox did nothing. As a Fox producer later said, "As the day went on, it fell off my radar." Ask yourself whether Fox would have ignored an on-the-record, primary-source tip about a canoodling Democratic senator with presidential aspirations.

He who fails to control the story is generally consumed by it. Case in point, congressman Fossella, who hailed from Staten Island. He and his extramarital mistress had a baby together; the problem was that he got picked up for drunken driving in Virginia while en route to seeing her, and she bailed him out. He was outed last year, against his will and after many pitiful denials, during the subsequent criminal probe. He used to be the sole Republican in New York City's congressional delegation; one election later, there are no Republicans in New York City's congressional delegation.

Don’t let the cover-up trump the confession. That’s Sanford’s problem; he got little mileage from coming clean because the road to that moment had been paved with too many lies. When he vanished, South Carolinians was first told that the governor went away "to work on a couple of projects that have fallen by the wayside." Then they were told he "was writing something and wanted some space." Then they were told he was hiking alone on the Appalachian Trail. I began to envision a guy colliding with a tree while thumbing his Blackberry.

But the poster boy of cover-ups is probably John Edwards, the Democratic presidential candidate whose chief sales asset was supposedly his virtuous character. He spent months denouncing "tabloid trash" reports about his liaison, and when finally forced to confess, he came up with the Remission Defense, arguing that he’d strayed only while his wife’s cancer was under control...although I don't recall that he ever produced a doctor's permission slip.
Avoid the pitfalls of hypocrisy. For all the heat that Bill Clinton took in the Lewinsky affair, he escaped in part because he’d never paraded himself as a self-righteous paragon of family values. Ensign’s problem, by contrast, is that his tryst doesn’t jibe with his membership in Promise Keepers, an evangelical group that promotes strong, straight marriages; in 2004, he told his senatorial colleagues that "marriage is the cornerstone on which our society was founded," and seeks to protect "the sanctity of that institution."

Edwards too was quite the moral pontificator. Here he was in 1999, as a new senator, assailing Clinton: "I think this president has shown a remarkable disrespect...for the moral dimensions of leadership, for his friends, for his wife, for his precious daughter. It is breathtaking to me, the level to which that disrespect has risen." (On the hypocrisy meter, however, Edwards was trumped at the time by Bob Livingston, the Republican congressman from Louisiana who was set to become House Speaker. Livingston, pumped by moral outrage, had demanded Clinton's resignation - only to be revealed as a multiple adulterer. Goodbye speakership, goodbye House seat. Final delicious detail: in 1999, the guy who ascended to Livingston's House seat was...David Vitter.)

Mark Sanford’s hypocrisies are mostly in the economic realm. Remember, this is the Republican executive – a hero among fiscal conservatives - who rejected $700 million in Obama stimulus money until the state’s highest court ordered him to take it. Somehow, it looks bad for a governor to block money specifically earmarked to help the state’s struggling schoolchildren - all in the cause of fiscal conservatism - while he’s dipping into the public trough to finance visits to his Argentinian lover.
No loose ends. For any confessing miscreant, the ideal outcome is that the story dies quickly, but generally that’s not how it works. As British author Aldous Huxley intoned early in the last century, "Human beings are condemned to consequences." Just ask Edwards, whose wife is ensconced on the best-seller list (at his expense), and whose mistress may well have given birth to his child (the paternity story has yet to be definitively written). 

Ensign, meanwhile, would love to close the book on his Nevada adventure, but that story is getting fresh oxygen every day. A nonpartisan citizen watchdog group has filed ethics complaints alleging that Ensign may have paid hush money, while violating various sexual harassment and campaign finance rules...which translates into paperwork for the Senate Ethics Committee and the Federal Elections Commission, and more stories down the road.

As for Sanford, he’s already being dogged by daily calls for his resignation, mostly from Republicans in the dog-eat-dog dirt pit of South Carolina politics. And fiscal hypocrisies aside, there is the dereliction-of-duty issue – namely, that he went incommunicado without transferring any authority to the lieutenant governor who had no clue where he was. Sanford is just lucky he didn’t pursue his "soul mate" during the peak of hurricane season.

Indeed, the DOD issue was addressed on CNN yesterday by Tim Pawlenty, the Minnesota Republican governor who may be gearing up for a '12 presidential bid. He took the opportunity to heap fresh dirt on Sanford's dead presidential prospects and ensure that his erstwhile rival stays buried: "I'm very careful to make sure that numerous staff people and my security detail always know where I am and can reach me. And any governor should do that...He should not have left the state and not allowed people to know how to contact him in case something happened. That's obvious." 

Speaking of luck, it’s important to get some. Ensign has the advantage of geography; his voters are influenced by Vegas values (after all, Nevada has the top divorce rate of all 50 states). And Sanford? After one bad day, he was lucky enough to get blown clear out of the news cycle. Two words: Michael Jackson.

In gratitude, maybe Sanford should don the one glove and sing a few bars from Billy Jean:

People always told me be careful of what you do...And be careful of what you do 'cause the lie becomes the truth.