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.

After a second embarrassing incident, when Mills staggered drunkenly on a stage where Foxe was appearing, he gave up his powerful chairmanship.

A few years later in 1976 an Ohio Republican, Wayne Hays, was forced to step down after the Washington Post reported he had put his mistress, Elizabeth Ray, on his House payroll as a secretary. Ray said, "I can't type. I can't file. I can't even answer the phone."

In 1983 the House censured two congressmen, Republican Dan Crane and Gerry Studds, for engaging in sex with congressional pages. Crane admitted involvement with a female page. He ran for re-election, but lost. In Studds' case the page was a 17-year-old boy. Studds was re-elected until his retirement 14 years later.

So, it is not entirely accurate to say that voters and other politicians are more forgiving of heterosexuals than gays. Barney Frank, an openly gay Democratic congressman, was faced with scandal in 1990. A male escort, Steve Gobie, claimed that he used Frank's apartment for liaisons when the congressman was not at home. Frank said he was unaware of Gobie's activities. The House Ethics Committee found no evidence that Frank was supporting male prostitution. Even so, the House voted to reprimand him. But today, he is chairman of the House Financial Services Committee.

Republican Congressman Mark Foley was not so fortunate. Members of both parties wanted him ousted because teenage boys, who had served as congressional pages, had received suggestive e-mails and sexually explicit instant messages. After ABC News confronted Foley, he resigned. In Frank's case, unlike Foley's, congressional pages were not involved. The outrage expressed at Foley seemed to have nothing to do with his sexual orientation, and everything to do with the widespread belief that he dealt improperly with young people seeking to learn the ways of Washington.

Many Republicans believe the Foley scandal was a key factor in the Democratic victory last November. With that in mind, they quickly called for Craig to step down. If there had been no Foley scandal, the pressure on Craig might not have been so great. Again, timing was, if not everything, still very important.

Now Craig is wondering whether his own timing was a bit off, wondering whether he really had to announce his resignation so quickly. And wondering now whether there is still time to change his mind.