The cringe factor may be the most important one in determining whether a politician can weather a sex scandal, but cringiness falls along a scale of acceptability that is varied in its shadings.
Anthony Weiner, who is running for mayor of New York, has strayed into territory so peculiar that the public may be cringing less about the offensiveness of his behavior than about his apparent inability to control his impulses — and a parallel inability to avoid self-defeating political embarrassment.
Weiner is just the latest in an unending catalogue of public figures whose sexual peccadilloes have been exposed in embarrassing fashion. The paradigm, of course, was President Clinton, whose embarrassment was all the more acute because of the adolescent neediness suggested by his behavior, combined with the august status of his office. He was not in the back seat of a car. He was in a study off of the Oval Office.
His behavior may not have produced cringes as much as it did a sense of wonder: How could he have? What produced cringes was the over-the-top self-righteousness of politicians seeking to pillory him for his behavior, some of whom were engaging in behavior no less morally questionable.
The former governor of South Carolina, Mark Sanford, created a scandal unique among recent examples when it was revealed that instead of venturing off by himself on the Appalachian Trail, he had been flying away secretly to meet his Argentine lover. It was easy to mock him because of the earnestness of his public sorrow, by which he meant to convey his own moral righteousness through an abundance of self-flagellation. It ended his career as governor, as well as his marriage to a wife who decided she would not be party to his political or personal foolishness.
But then he decided to run for Congress, and he won. It is a curious irony that the states where the family is least stable — high divorce rates, for example — are the same states where family values color the rhetoric of politicians most vividly. It would seem that, based on harsh experience, South Carolinians do not approve of adultery. But if you are really, really sorry, then it appears you can get back in their good graces.
The latest examples involve the two New Yorkers — Weiner and Eliot Spitzer, the former governor who is now running for New York City comptroller. Spitzer suffered a spectacular fall when the public learned he had frequented high-priced call girls. He had to resign the governorship as a result.
He didn’t exactly fade into obscurity. As a cable TV personality, he thrust his brazen mug in front of the public until people were used to the fact that he had a minimum of shame. That he had used prostitutes does not make him unique among politicians, and it is apparent that the cringes caused by his past actions have diminished
Weiner’s case is of a different order. He had resigned his post as a member of Congress after the public became aware that he had been sending sexually provocative electronic photos of himself by phone to unknown persons. It was harmless but weird — weird enough that he felt compelled to resign. But he had learned his lesson, etc., etc., and he would fix his personal life, he said, his wife standing beside him.
But no. Now it turns out he is admitting to additional sexting, even after learning his lesson, which raises questions, not so much about his sex life, but about his ability to conduct himself as a public figure. His actions have subjected the public to a cringe-inducing example of a would-be mayor from whom not even apologies can be trusted.
The public has reason for concern when sexual misdeeds reveal issues of character that go beyond the ordinary sins of the flesh, about which the public has exhibited a relatively forgiving attitude. Weiner, it appears, has gone a cringe too far.
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