Technology and the political sex scandal

Technology and the political sex scandal
Washington:  In 1791, while serving as secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton began an affair with Maria Reynolds, being blackmailed by her husband for several years to allow it to continue. When a muckraker exposed the affair and the cover-up, Hamilton turned to the communications technology of the day to defend himself, publishing a pamphlet in which he argued that he had never abused any public resources.

More than two centuries and many scandals later, Twitter has replaced pamphlets as the medium of the moment - and become the new means for politicians to engage in sexual misconduct. Now, it is Representative Anthony D. Weiner, under pressure to resign after he first denied and then admitted "sexting" lewd messages and pictures of himself in his underwear via Twitter to college students and a porn star, among other young women. (The New York Democrat has defended himself -- plus ├ža change -- by arguing that he did not abuse public resources in his misdeeds.)

Certainly there are things particular to Washington that make sex scandals as predictable as swampy weather in July -- and to politicians in general, especially lately, as the recent scandals involving Arnold Schwarzenegger (child out of wedlock) and John Edwards (child out of wedlock, and last week indicted for allegedly lying over his affair) have served to remind.

But technology keeps adding new and in many ways more seductive temptations to the mix. And this is happening at a time when, many argue, a more prying press corps, stricter public standards and greater partisanship have combined to make Washington oddly more puritanical than it once was. Hamilton, after all, had confessed his affair to investigators in Congress several years before he was actually exposed for it. But 15 years after the House of Representatives impeached President Bill Clinton, revealing lurid details of his sexual dalliances with a White House intern, most politicians now know that they can't count on the press or their peers to stay silent about straying.

The Internet, with its promise of simultaneous intimacy and distance, offers a new way to flout moral strictures.

"The tweeting seems as though it restores a degree of anonymity," said Suzanne Garment, whose 1991 book, "Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics" keeps proving its relevance. "After Watergate and the women's movement, it became much less permissible to act this way, but technology seems to have restored this veil, or the sense that there is a veil. People don't meet in hotels, they tweet."

In 1974, when Wilbur Mills, the powerful Democratic chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, was caught cavorting with an Argentine stripper who performed under the name Fanne Foxe, it was only because she had jumped into the Potomac River tidal basin after the police had stopped Mills for driving without his lights on. "If she hadn't dumped herself in the water, probably they wouldn't have gotten caught," Ms. Garment said. "They were running all over Washington, but people weren't looking in the same way then."

If politicians recognize that they can't get away with hard drinking and carousing in public, some have simply found new outlets for bad behavior online. They may understand that they cannot be seen leaving a party with a lobbyist of the opposite sex, but sending raunchy pictures online at midnight seems somehow different.

"My guess is that the behavior is not more strait-laced, but the coverage and the newsworthiness of this is what has changed," said Thomas Mann, an expert on Congress at the Brookings Institution and a longtime observer of Washington. "The opportunities for titillating relationships that don't involve affairs, per se, have increased. So there is potential for exposure."

In 2006, Representative Mark Foley, a Republican from Florida, was caught sending sexually explicit messages online to underage congressional pages. In February, Representative Christopher Lee, a Republican from upstate New York, resigned after he was revealed to have posted a shirtless photo of himself on a dating site (his description of himself failed to mention that he was married, much less a congressman).

"It's fascinating the extent to which the warnings about the high risk of exposure and severe political damage have not dissuaded some people," Mr. Mann said.

So why doesn't memory last as long as it takes to hit send?

Part of that has to do with politics, which self-selects for people with risk-taking behavior and a high degree of self-regard.

"The mere fact that you're willing to put your name on the ballot and have people vote you up or down takes an enormous amount of self-confidence," said Chris Lehane, a Democratic political strategist who has been watching the Weiner scandal unfold from a Hollywood set, where he is helping make a movie about -- surprise -- politicians involved in sex scandals. "The flip side of that is that type of personality and that sense of confidence in your own decisions allows them to make reckless decisions. It's the Icarus phenomenon: you think you have wings and you can fly up to the sun and down to the water. Sometimes you get burned, and then you sink."

Doug Sosnik, who was a senior adviser to President Clinton during his impeachment, notes another reason that politicians stray: "Because they can." And the public sometimes turns a jaded eye from scandals, deeming them private. (Even when a politician is punished for sexual transgressions, there can be a second act. Witness Eliot Spitzer, who resigned as governor of New York after he was revealed as a repeat client of a high-end escort service, and has been commenting on the recent spate of sex scandals as the host of his own show on CNN.)

At some point, though, a line is crossed. And the lines between acceptable and unacceptable behavior with technology are becoming clearer.

"It's really a new frontier," said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster. "There was a temporary honeymoon where people thought this was the way to go, and they're seeing pretty fast that it doesn't work."
Story First Published: June 16, 2011 20:34 IST

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