To Avoid Public Pillory, Keep Your Misdeeds Boring
It may be that Pope Francis is the only one asking, “Who am I to judge?” The rest of us judge our fellow man all the time -- and inconsistently.
We swing, with help from the news media, between our Puritan heritage and our more libertine present as we decide who can sin and go on and who can’t. We brush aside scandals that are more personally damaging: We are bored by the financial, which is complicated, and riveted by the sexual, which isn’t.
We are a country with ever-shifting standards of morality and attention spans. Sometimes, prurient fascination ordains the outcome of a scandal -- Anthony Weiner will not be mayor of New York. But a lack of sustained interest is why a lot of bankers are walking around smiling, millions of dollars richer than they were when they tanked the economy with reckless deals five years ago. If JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM) Chairman Jamie Dimon were hounded by the press the way Weiner is, there wouldn’t have been a London Whale.
And it seems that a public official taking gifts, indeed bribes, from a flaky dietary supplement maker isn’t as bad (or as interesting) as sexting; the latest spate of Weiner tweets has blown Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell off the front page.
Weiner’s crash in the polls suggests that sexting is worse than hookers -- comeback candidate Eliot Spitzer is holding his own in the New York City comptroller’s race -- or affairs with interns (see: Bill Clinton). The difference can be partly explained by conditioning. Clinton’s dalliance with Monica Lewinsky in the White House was shocking at the start. Nine months later, the blue dress had become just one more fashion item, and the public had come to dislike special prosecutor Ken Starr a lot more than they did the president. The Big Dog escaped the noose, and is among the most admired people in the world.
The difference between the Spitzer and Weiner scandals is partly the newness of our first sexless sex scandal. Pornography is our biggest Internet industry, and prostitution is as old as the Bible, but sexting is a new twist on those two traditions. Grow up on Facebook, however, and it’s just one more way of hooking up, and safer; an iPhone doesn’t transmit an STD. In five years, chances are we won’t find it so creepy and weird.
Future miscreants be warned, however, that what we won’t accept is hypocrisy. Former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford was known for fiscal prudence, not the other kind; he wasn’t a horn dog but fell in love and announced plans to marry. He serves again, as a congressman. Nonhypocrite Representative Barney Frank, a master of public not private mores, went on to serve many years after it emerged that his boyfriend was operating a prostitution ring from the basement of his house. By contrast Senator Larry Craig, a would-be paragon of virtue, was driven out of office after he was caught in a wide stance in an airport restroom.
One sure thing is that the media and skittish politicians are poor guides to what really matters. For my money (and I’m not saying that metaphorically), the people who should have their heads on the chopping block (I am saying that metaphorically, but just a little) are the financial moguls. They are once again “too big to fail” as they take home enormous paychecks while the people they injured by their reckless behavior have houses worth less than their mortgages, work two jobs if they can find work at all, and can’t send their kids to college.
Among current scandals, why do we treat Weiner as a bigger creep than SAC Capital Advisors LP’s Steve Cohen? You can’t find anyone defending Weiner, but there are people defending Cohen and his brilliant stock picks, even though prosecutors assert that in at least one instance his brilliance struck right after he was sent an e-mail that may have contained inside information.
Weiner’s crime is victimless, if you exclude his wife and son. Cohen hurt everyone who bought a stock without cheating and specifically, those who picked up the stock he supposedly dumped on illegal information. If I have to choose, I prefer Sanford’s cheating to the kind Cohen is accused of.
Cohen is innocent until proved guilty; the same isn’t true of politicians. They are hung immediately, even by their colleagues, who would rather they disappeared so as to avoid the suggestion that their sin is contagious.
One reason sexual misconduct is covered way out of proportion to other types is that it involves no spreadsheets or price-earnings ratios, has the element of surprise, and requires only the attention span of a viewer of “Jersey Shore.” It’s not that sexual misconduct doesn’t tell you something about character. It does. But it’s a smaller part of character than the coverage and our reaction to it would lead you to believe.
Take Weiner versus McDonnell. Federal authorities are investigating whether a dietary-supplement maker got help with a fake drug after he showered more than $150,000 in gifts and loans on the Virginia governor and his family. If it weren’t for one of our much-maligned bureaucrats putting the kibosh on the drug’s approval despite possible pressure from the governor’s mansion, Virginians would be swilling snake oil. McDonnell’s alleged transgression goes to the heart of government, but I bet more Virginians are following the Weiner affair.
I don’t mean this to be an exoneration of Weiner, but a plea for proportion in our attention. We miss a lot when we’re following the bright and shiny object.
Weiner’s travails have moved from mere sex scandal to a crisis of character. A forgettable congressman resigned in disgrace after being caught texting inappropriate photos. After a couple of years, pictures of him and his wife with their young son replaced those of his crotch in the public’s mind. He announced a run for mayor and went to the top of the pack.
But with his addiction to cheap thrills, taste for risk and a misplaced belief in his own greatness, he threw away the gift of a second chance bestowed upon him by his wife and the public. This is the one sure lesson of scandals: Whatever the fall from grace, Americans are ready to give a second chance, but not a third.
(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.)
To contact the editor responsible for this column: Max Berley at firstname.lastname@example.org.