Eliot Spitzer is hardly the first U.S. politician who didn’t let infamy get in the way of a comeback.
With his announcement yesterday that he’ll run in the Democratic primary for New York City comptroller five years after a prostitution scandal drove him from the governor’s office, Spitzer joins a long list of Democratic and Republican officials who have turned F. Scott Fitzgerald’s maxim that “there are no second acts in American lives” on its head.
Instead, the main issue may be how long the public imposes a statute of limitations on misconduct.
President Bill Clinton was impeached for lying to investigators about his improper relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky, only to see his approval ratings improve. He finds himself today on the perch of an honored world statesman.
More recently, former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, a Republican who used a ruse about hiking the Appalachian Trail to cover up an affair with an Argentinian woman who later became his fiancee, won a House seat on May 7.
“The behavior recurs because comebacks work,” said Bruce Buchanan, a professor of government at the University of Texas in Austin. “Clinton, Sanford, and others have won forgiveness. Why shouldn’t Spitzer? Disgraced politicians want to go back to doing what they do well, and many are immodest enough to give it a try.”
The power of a story of redemption is as old as the Bible, and in politics it’s almost as enduring.
Spitzer’s re-entry into political life immediately became a spectacle as he was surrounded yesterday by reporters and hecklers, sweat dripping from his forehead, after his arrival at the west side of Union Square where he was seeking petition signatures for his candidacy.
“People have forgiveness in their hearts,” Spitzer said, later adding, “I have seen the tallest peaks in politics, and I’ve seen the deepest valleys. The peaks are more fun than the valleys, but you learn more in them.”
Early reaction to Spitzer’s decision from some New Yorkers was positive.
“This is America and everybody deserves a second chance and I don’t really care what he did because I’m sure there’s about 2,000 politicians that have done disgusting things and I don’t really care,” said Molly Abady, 71, who lives in Manhattan. “I care about New York and I care about me.”
Henry A. Sheinkopf, president of New York-based Sheinkopf Communications Ltd., said that the public has an unofficial parole for public officials involved in scandal that he calls “the 2-5 rule.”
Spitzer’s scandal “is five years old. Five is probably enough time,” he said.
In an age where any utterance, image or word committed to digital memory can instantly become public, politicians are more likely to get caught in a misdeed.
“Most of the ‘forgiven’ have been highly talented politicians perceived as very effective in their elected positions when scandal struck,” Buchanan said. “Spitzer certainly fits that mold. Capable public officials are not a dime a dozen. Most voters see a situation like Spitzer’s pragmatically. Why waste scarce talent? Nobody’s perfect.”
Anthony Weiner, a Democrat who resigned from Congress in 2011 after admitting that he sent lewd photos of himself to several women via Twitter, offered his apologies to voters and now is a leading candidate to replace Michael Bloomberg as mayor of New York City. Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
“Most politicians are morbidly attracted to the ‘action,’” said Ross K. Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. “Disgrace, followed rapidly by self-mortification and penance, is the first step on the road back to where the action is.”
Baker said Spitzer “may also have been influenced by the forgiveness of voters in South Carolina’s 1st District. If the flinty-hearted conservatives can forgive Sanford, the broad-minded New Yorkers could hardly be more demanding.”
Joseph Mercurio, a professor of political science at Fordham University in Manhattan and a former candidate consultant, drew a distinction between Weiner and Spitzer.
“We’re a Judeo-Christian culture,” he said. “Redemption and forgiveness are part of peoples’ thinking.” Yet, he said, “Spitzer prosecuted prostitutes when he was attorney general. Hypocrisy is very tough to get past.”
Examples of scandal comebacks span the nation and involve a host of offenses.
Trent Lott, the former Republican leader in the U.S. Senate from Mississippi, stepped down in 2002 from his post following controversy over his remarks in praise of Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina on his 100th birthday. Lott said if the country had followed the lead of Thurmond, who ran for president in 1948 as the State’s Rights Party candidate who favored segregation, “we wouldn’t have had all these problems over the years.” Four years later, he regained a leadership position before retiring from office to become a lobbyist.
Republican Senator David Vitter of Louisiana, a state with a well-developed reputation for scandal of all variety, survived his admission that he consorted with a prostitute and went on to win re-election in 2010.
Former Representative Wilbur Mills was the Democratic chairman of the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee when he was caught drunk and in the company of a stripper whose stage name was “Fanne Foxe.” He won re-election to his Arkansas House seat in 1974. A month later, caught drunk again with Foxe, he admitted his alcoholism and resigned.
Grover Cleveland, also a Democrat, overcame reports about his illegitimate child to become the only president to win two non-consecutive terms, in 1884 and 1892.
Former Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry, who was captured on videotape smoking a crack pipe, was forced from office and later imprisoned, only to rise again as a member of the City Council.
George Wallace, a segregationist governor of Alabama, sought the presidency in 1968 as the American Independent Party candidate. In 1982, he captured the governor’s office again, with broad support from African Americans.
It doesn’t always end well.
Larry Craig, a senator from Idaho who was critical of Clinton’s conduct, had his own problems when he was arrested on suspicion of lewd conduct in a men’s room at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. The Idaho Statesman later ran an article that detailed other alleged relationships that Craig, who was married, had with other men. He was admonished by the Senate and did not seek re-election.
Newt Gingrich, who led the drive to impeach Clinton, resigned as the U.S. House speaker after his own ethical troubles and later acknowledged an extra-marital affair with a congressional aide who is now his third wife, Callista. When he sought the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, his ex-wife, Marianne, gave her first interview since their 1999 divorce and told ABC News that he lacked the moral character to be president. He lost.
The most high-profile flame-out of the last half century might well be Gary Hart, a Colorado senator who sought the Democratic nomination in the 1988 presidential election.
As reporters were asking him questions about rumors of improper relationships outside his marriage, Hart challenged them to “follow me around.”
The media did just that and caught him aboard a yacht named “Monkey Business” with a woman not his wife, Donna Rice. He dropped out of the race a week after the news broke.
Hart sought a comeback in the 2004 presidential election. As he began to lay the groundwork for that race, he made the rounds on the morning talk shows.
“Children in poverty is a scandal. Americans dying in unnecessary wars is a scandal. People out of work is a scandal,” Hart said in 2003 on NBC’s “Today Show.” “Call what I did folly or something else. But by comparison to real scandals, I don’t think that qualifies.”
The Democratic voters thought otherwise, and nominated Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, who lost to President George W. Bush.