The American Debate: Survival tips for misbehavin' pols

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South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (center) answers reporters' questions about his affair at a news conference.

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 explain why we know about John Edwards and his videographer, David Vitter and his hookers, Eliot Spitzer as Client No. 9, 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, and Mark Sanford crying in Argentina on the taxpayers' dime.

It's quite a list. And they've all done time in penance purgatory. Why did they misbehave to the point of risking their careers?

Duh. Because humans are complicated. Because, as a sociologist told me during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, "politicians live in a highly adrenalized environment." Because a lot of guys in public life get drunk on themselves.

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

Control the story on Day One. Ensign, the Republican senator from Nevada, made a smart move by holding a news 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 previously had e-mailed the dirty details to Fox News - and Fox did nothing. 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: New York congressman Fossella. He and his extramarital mistress had a baby together. The problem was that he got picked up for drunken driving while en route to see the woman, and she bailed him out.

Fossella was outed last year, against his will, during the subsequent criminal probe. He is now an ex-New York congressman.

Don't let the cover-up trump the confession. This is Sanford's problem: He got little mileage out of coming clean because the road to that moment had been paved with too many lies.

When Sanford vanished, South Carolinians were first told that their governor had gone away "to recharge - 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. Even in our era of multitasking, I doubt that anyone has mastered the art of writing while hiking.

But the poster boy for damaging cover-ups is probably John Edwards, the Democratic presidential candidate whose chief asset was supposedly his virtuous character. He spent months denouncing "tabloid trash" reports about his liaison and, when finally forced to confess, came up with the Remission Defense - arguing that he had strayed only while his wife's cancer was under control.

Avoid the pitfalls of hypocrisy. For all the heat that Bill Clinton took for the Lewinsky affair, he escaped partly because he had never paraded as a self-righteous paragon of family values. Ensign's problem is that his tryst doesn't jibe with his membership in Promise Keepers, an evangelical group that promotes strong, straight marriages; he has declared that "marriage is the cornerstone on which our society was founded" and sought to protect "the sanctity of that institution."

Sanford's hypocrisies are in the economic realm. Remember, this is the Republican governor who became a hero to fiscal conservatives by rejecting $700 million in federal stimulus money until the state's highest court ordered him to take it. Somehow, it looks bad for a governor to block money earmarked for the state's struggling schoolchildren on the grounds of fiscal conservatism while he's dipping into the public trough to finance visits to his Argentine lover.

Don't leave any loose ends. For any confessing miscreant, the ideal outcome is that the story dies quickly. But generally that's not how it works. Just ask Edwards, whose wife is ensconced on the best-seller list.

Ensign, meanwhile, would love to close the book on his Nevada adventure, but the story is getting fresh oxygen every day. A citizen watchdog group has filed ethics complaints alleging that Ensign may have paid hush money while violating various sexual-harassment and campaign-finance rules.

As for Sanford, he'll be dogged by daily calls for his resignation. 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 "soulmate" during the peak of hurricane season.

Speaking of luck, get some. Ensign has the advantage of geography; his voters are influenced by Vegas values. And Sanford? After one bad day, he was blown out of the news cycle. Two words: Michael Jackson.

In gratitude, maybe Sanford should don one glove and sing a few bars from "Billie Jean": People always told me be careful of what you do . . . And be careful of what you do, 'cause the lie becomes the truth.

 


Dick Polman's blog is at http://go.philly.com/polman. He can be contacted at dpolman@phillynews.com.