Decades hence, when we’re telling our baffled grandkids about the historical move away from laws prohibiting adultery, miscegenation, sodomy, gay marriage, and (probably, let’s face it) polygamy, we’ll linger for a while on the crucial events of the last few weeks. This summer has already seen the Supreme Court’s monumental felling of the Defense of Marriage Act. Sunday’s announcement of Elliot Spitzer’s candidacy for comptroller of New York, combined with similar comeback bids by Mark Sanford and Anthony Weiner, offers a kind of reverse proof of the same trend: Just as many politicians have begun to move on from the marriage wars, marital peccadilloes have less than ever to do with electability.
If anyone should have stayed on the mat following a sex-related knockout, it was the ex-New York governor. His taste in expensive call girls occurred at the calamitous intersection of sex and money, where the public’s boredom with official venality (on glorious display currently in the underpublicized corruption case building against Virginia governor and luxury watch connoisseur Bob McDonnell) is plied with enough titillation to launch a thousand exposés. Further complicating the crisis was a massive hypocrisy problem. Spitzer’s gleeful self-righteousness as both governor and state attorney general—he broke up international prostitution rings and later helped pass a law that targeted and shamed patrons rather than sex workers—was visited back upon him by critics of both parties. The rising star who had been considered a presidential contender a few years before was now lucky to avoid federal prosecution under esoteric white slavery restrictions.
But instead of settling in for a second career as a civics professor at one of the more rustic SUNY campuses, Spitzer took the heat and reestablished himself as an acceptable public figure. His commentary shows on CNN and Current TV flopped, but that probably helped more than hurt: It was important that the public see him fail, a penance for his sins that now makes it all the easier to forgive him. And then he picked an auspicious year to climb out of his own political grave, as fellow New Yorker Weiner and ex-South Carolina Governor (and recently-elected U.S. Representative) Mark Sanford have both spent 2013 busily sandblasting their faces off the Mount Rushmore of lousy husbanding. Their phenomenal success in rehabilitating themselves, considering the infamy of their flameouts, has helped prepare the ground for Spitzer’s own Lazarus act.
While Sanford had to contend with his understandably miffed wife, Jenny—she not only left her husband at the podium to do his own explaining, but enthusiastically disrupted his redemption narrative during the congressional race this spring—Weiner was fortunate to find a more cooperative partner in his wife, Huma Abedin. The couple participated together in a kid-gloves profile that ran in The New York Times Magazine; without her public forgiveness, the disgraced congressman’s very strong run for New York City Mayor would be a much harder lift. And unlike his fellow penitents, Weiner has sidestepped the additional fact that his sexual indiscretions were, in one case, a form of harassment. While they may cast a blind eye on the misdeeds of randy, if consenting adults, voters have typically recoiled from allegations of abusive lechery. No similar condemnation has been leveled at Weiner thus far.
If revealing one’s private parts to confused strangers and besmirching the wholesome fun of the Appalachian Trail are no longer grounds for lifelong banishment, exactly what kind of sex scandal now has the power to disqualify? Spitzer’s run for a rather humble municipal office (the list of former New York City comptrollers is a veritable Who’s Who of guys you’ve never heard of), if successful, will be the strongest evidence yet of the decoupling of politics from sex. Perhaps the less moralizing intrusion the people must endure from their leaders, the more forgiving they become when the same scolds are shown to be flawed themselves.
This is not to say that John Edwards or Larry Craig may crawl out of the woodwork now.