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You Can Survive a Sex Scandal in the Post-Clinton Era

Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. She was a White House correspondent for Time, a weekly panelist on CNN’s “Capital Gang” and an editor at the New Republic.
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Sounding a lot like Bill Clinton, the beleaguered governor of Alabama, Robert Bentley, called a news conference on Wednesday to say in no uncertain terms that he did not have sex with that woman.

Accused of having an illicit relationship with an aide, Rebekah Caldwell Mason, he stopped short of wagging his finger. But, in another Clinton parallel, there is readily available evidence that contradicts his denials: Text messages and audio recordings made public by the Alabama Media Group and the governor's just-fired head of law enforcement, Spencer Collier.

In a separate press conference, Collier, who said Bentley was like a father to him, contradicted the governor's statement that although he may have made inappropriate remarks to a staffer, he had not participated in a “physical, sexual relationship.” Hogwash is more or less what Collier said to that. He claimed that he and another official had uncovered explicit texts between Bentley and Mason, his closest and highest-paid adviser. There also are tapes made by “the family,” which earlier had tried to determine whether Bentley was cheating on his wife.

The public has made an uneasy peace with the foibles of its politicians in the post-Clinton world. Character, as it’s now assessed, includes sexual conduct but that isn’t weighed so heavily that it blocks out every thing else. Knock out politicians for having affairs, and you might not have enough left to vote for. Lying is considered a lesser-included offense because no one willingly admits to infidelity. Politicians survive -- former Governor Mark Sanford of Appalachian Trail fame (elected to Congress), Senator David Vitter (who admitted to dalliances with prostitutes won re-election once, but not his bid to become Louisiana governor), and Clinton himself (shamed, impeached, but not thrown out of office).

The lines that remain are drawn at the office door or at illegality. Those who’ve run afoul of the current ethos crossed one or the other: Nevada Senator John Ensign (the office) and former Governor Eliot Spitzer (prostitutes). Former New York Congressman Anthony Weiner fits no category except utter stupidity.

The transcript of the tapes suggests that Bentley falls into both the Ensign (Mason, said Collier, was a “de facto governor”) and Weiner classifications. Bentley said, “If we are going to do what we did the other day, we are going to have to lock the door."  And "When I stand behind you, and I put my arms around you, and I put my hands on your breasts, and I put my hands (muffled) and just pull you real close, I love that, too." “ Baby, I love you. I know we are in a difficult situation. Unless I make things as normal as possible here, it is going to be hell."

It’s a certain kind of hell now as Bentley enters the first stage of a scandal. When asked about the tapes on Wednesday, he repeatedly acknowledged that his words were “inappropriate” but that’s as far as it went.  He explained that the love he spoke of was the love he felt for all his staff, adding, almost comically, “some more than others.”

Mason is married. Bentley no longer has a spouse to stand by his side. He and his wife of 50 years divorced after he won re-election in 2014. The other lasting law of these scandals is that the other woman suffers no matter what happens to the principal, Monica Lewinsky being exhibit No. 1. Mason, however, is not going gently into someone else’s scandal.  The whole thing, she said in a statement, is a result of “clear, demonstrated gender bias” by Collier.  “There is no way that man would have said what he did today about another man.”

But Collier begs to differ: At one time, Mason was on the state payroll but how she gets paid her salary of almost $500,000 now is foggy. That could be the smoking gun.  However she’s paid, Mason is almost always by the governor’s side. Bentley is going after Collier as if his former law-enforcement chief were his only problem and the tapes did not exist. Collier was fired, Bentley’s supporters say, only after an internal review found “possible misuse of state money.” Collier says he was fired because he confronted Bentley about the affair and because he refused to lie before the grand jury about a friend of Bentley’s in an ethics inquiry.

The governor is sticking with his denial that it was all words -- and misinterpreted ones at that. Even so, under the "in the office" rule, he’s still vulnerable and the digging has just begun. The popular governor may survive depending on what your definition of survive is. To those who watched him at the Capitol on Wednesday, it was questionable whether the first deacon of the First Baptist Church of Tuscaloosa and 73-year-old grandfather survived humiliation.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Margaret Carlson at mcarlson3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net