published Saturday, June 11th, 2011

History shows Weiner could persevere past scandal

If he manages to keep his seat in Congress, Anthony Weiner would join a handful of political figures who survived what initially looked like a career-ending debacle.

And even if the experiences of the likes of Bill Clinton, Barney Frank, David Vitter and others weren’t enough, a new poll points to a forgiving constituency.

Both factors point to what observers call a truism in the fast-paced world of seamy gossip and online revelations — the first few days after a politician comes clean are invariably the worst.

“By sitting tight, most of the politicians were able to stay in office,” said Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. “In general, voters are interested in these sex scandals, but they are not willing to kick their senators or representatives out of office.”

Weiner, a married seven-term Democrat, this week acknowledged sending sexually charged photos and messages to six women he did not know. The scandal started with the release by a conservative blogger of a man’s bulging underpants, a picture the blogger said Weiner had sent to a 21-year-old follower on Twitter.

The congressman initially said it was a hack job, then a prank, then at a candid half-hour news conference tearfully acknowledged sending the photo. Further revelations of additional explicit photos and online exchanges with other women quickly escalated the matter, and several colleagues have called for him to resign.

Until recently, most political observers and media outlets considered it a foregone conclusion that his career was over.

But those reports may be premature, judging by the NY1-Marist Poll showing that 56 percent of registered voters polled in Weiner’s district think he should stay on the job, as well the experience of other politicians who have survived sex scandals.

In a nutshell, experts say, the lessons are these: Ride the scandal out as best you can. Hope that voters back home are in a forgiving mood. Pray that time and the nation’s short attention span will do the rest.

In 1989, Rep. Barney Frank’s political and personal life lay in tatters. Revelations that a companion had run a gay sex-for-hire ring out of the Massachusetts Democrat’s Washington apartment seemed like a career death knell.

Frank was reprimanded by the House for using his influence on behalf of the assistant, Stephen Gobie, although the Ethics Committee rejected Gobie’s allegations that Frank knew about the prostitution ring.

Two decades later, Frank had not only weathered the scandal, winning every election since, but had risen to one of the most influential posts in the House, controlled by Democrats at the time — chairman of the House Financial Services Committee.

Louisiana Sen. David Vitter lay low after news broke in July 2007 that his telephone number had appeared in the records of a Washington-area escort service that authorities said was a front for prostitution.

Vitter admitted only to a “serious” sin, stonewalled the details and bided his time. He also denied a claim by another prostitute that he had been a client.

He continues to serve in Congress.

Former President Bill Clinton conceded while in office that he’d had an inappropriate relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky. He was impeached but finished the rest of his presidency largely with popular support.

Today, Clinton inspires fondness and reverence among Democrats, with the Lewinsky scandal only a prominent footnote.

Key to their success were the survival skills honed in the crucible of the public spotlight, the kind that will be sorely tested in the case of Weiner, who appears already to have learned a few damage control lessons.

When he finally decided to offer a mea culpa, Weiner appeared alone instead of alongside his wife. That’s a departure from other politicians who’ve had their wives stand with them at news conferences — even as they admitted to cheating on them.

Weiner adopted another strategy designed to blunt the story — getting many embarrassing details out of the way and answering reporters’ questions for as long as possible in the hopes that the story will starve from a lack of new tidbits.

Still, the scrappy, impulsive style that has endeared him to fellow liberals has also isolated him from other lawmakers, and observers say that could hurt as he tries overcome withering criticism and rebuild his credibility.

Already, a half-dozen fellow Democratic members have called for his ouster. The party’s leader in the House, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, is demanding an ethics investigation.

But even among his alienated and lied-to colleagues, there’s hope for Weiner.

“I don’t know what he did, who he offended,” said Rep. Charles Rangel, the New York Democrat censured by the House for ethics violations but re-elected last year.

“I know one thing, he wasn’t going with prostitutes, he wasn’t going out with little boys, he wasn’t going into the men’s room with broad stances,” Rangel said in a barely veiled to former Sen. Larry Craig, who was accused of soliciting sex in an airport bathroom.

In addition to showing that a majority of polled voters support him, the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion poll showed 33 percent think he should go, while 12 percent are unsure. The poll of 512 adults on June 8 included 411 registered voters and had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percent.

Loyalty could help Weiner. In the case of Gerry Studds, years of cultivating a supportive constituency helped inoculate him in 1983, when revelations of a relationship with a 17-year-old page a decade earlier forced him to become the first openly gay member of Congress.

Studds, who had learned Portuguese so he could speak directly to immigrant fishermen in his district, won re-election and continued to represent the Cape Cod region until 1997.

While a politician may survive the initial shock, their political career can be irreparably doomed in the long term, said Paul Watanabe, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts.

Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford’s admission in 2009 that he had disappeared from his state to be with a woman he described as his “soul mate” in Argentina appeared to put the kibosh on a promising political career.

Sanford didn’t resign and served out his term, but is widely considered a political has-been.

Former Republican Sen. John Ensign of Nevada announced in June 2009 that he had an extramarital affair with a married former member of his campaign staff. His parents had provided the woman and her husband with $96,000, described as a gift, and Ensign had helped find the husband a lobbying job.

Ensign served until April, when he announced his resignation. During his farewell speech, he revealed that Craig was one of the first to call with support after Ensign had admitted his affair.

Craig pleaded guilty in 2007 to disorderly conduct after he was accused of soliciting sex in a bathroom at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. He later tried to withdraw his plea but served out his term.

In his farewell, Ensign said, “A person understands mercy a lot more when they need it and when it’s shown to them.”

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