Surviving a Scandal Is All in the Timing

As the twists and turns in the Larry Craig affair continue, the senator can no longer be put in the category of public figures who failed to survive a sex scandal. Craig now falls into a murky middle area as we await further developments.

Through the years some Washington VIPs have come through scandal without being forced out of office. Some haven't. One of those who did, former President Bill Clinton, said on NBC's "Today" show that in Craig's case "on the political level, it's up to the Republicans. They'll determine what happens here."

Clinton was not above taking a political shot while he was at it, implying that most Republicans have one standard for homosexual allegations and another for heterosexuals. The former president said Republicans "decided to say nothing about Sen. Vitter and then they decided to say everything about Sen. Craig."

Louisiana Republican Sen. David Vitter was named as a client of the "D.C. Madam" escort service. He publicly apologized, and remained in office. Republicans did not call for his scalp, as they did with Craig.

Whether a politician survives scandal depends on many factors, including the severity of the alleged offense, timing and luck. Vitter's fate, so far, has been different from that of the man he succeeded in the U.S. House of Representatives, Bob Livingston, who announced his resignation shortly after Republicans named him speaker-elect. Here timing was everything.

Livingston was one of the Republicans who demanded Clinton's impeachment in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky affair. In the middle of the impeachment debate, Livingston learned that Hustler magazine would soon reveal his own extramarital affair. He stepped down. In other times, he might survived. But with the nation embroiled in the Lewinsky affair, Livingston knew he would face charges of hypocrisy if he remained in Congress. Republicans appreciated his quick action, and he went on to a lucrative lobbying career in Washington.

Anyone studying Washington sex scandals will find they have occurred throughout American history, such as Alexander Hamilton's 1791 affair with a married woman. But many of those we know about happened in the last 40 or 50 years. Partly this can be attributed to the news media.

There was a time, believe it or not, when there was an unwritten rule about news coverage of politicians. If their conduct did not affect their public duties, then most (not all, but most) reporters and their editors regarded private lives as just that: private. The code extended to drinking as well as sexual matters. A powerful Southern congressman was often thought to be inebriated on the House floor. But he seemed to be doing his job effectively, so the news media looked the other way. The same leeway was given to a famous senator.

By the 1970s standards had changed. A powerful Democrat, Wilbur Mills, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, began cavorting with an Argentine stripper with the memorable name of Fanne Foxe. He was involved in a drunken driving incident with her. When police approached their car, she jumped into the shallow waters of the Tidal Basin overlooked by the disapproving statue of Thomas Jefferson. No one cared whether Mills' drinking affected his congressional duties. It was too sensational a story to ignore.

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