If you've paid attention to political scandals at all over the past 10 to 15 years, you've probably noticed a growning trend among politicians in their public mea culpa: the admission-and-apology-in-steps.
With Bill Clinton, what began as "I did not have sexual relations with that woman," progressed to an admission that he might have had an inappropriate (though not sexual) relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, which in trun led to his confession that it wasn't only a sexual liaison, it was a full-blown affair. His dishonesty throughout the scandal led to only the second impeachment in the history of the United States. Had Clinton not enjoyed safe Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress, he might have gotten a lot worse.
With South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, the initial claim was that his complete disappearance from Columbia for five days was because he'd been taking a hike along the Appalaichian Trail. When that went bust, he admitted that he'd been with a mistress in Argentina, but that he'd only seen her a handful of times, and never on the state's dime. As it turned out, the Governor would have to stick his foot in his...mouth, and admit to many more visits with his illicit lover, several different times using state-funded modes of transportation. Holding onto his career for dear life, Sanford is now the subject of a growing impeachment campaign that may very well cost the self-described "rabid right-winger" his job in one of th most Republican-friendly states in the country.
But others have gotten the art of the political scandal down perfectly, and that's why some of them still have a chance at making a legitimate comeback.
When news broke that Eliot Spitzer had been a patron of a high-priced prostitution ring based in New York, the public outrage was palpable. But so was the Governor's remorse. In what had to be one of the most humbling, humiliating political press conferences in recent memory, Spitzer admitted to every single accusation against him, and was surprisingly candid even in the midst of a criminal investigation into his behavior. He resigned his post several days later, and kept his face out of the spotlight. But in the entire scandal, Spitzer never denied wrongdoing. He never lashed out at the media, or charged Republicans with engineering a politically motivated character assassination. He was dealt one of the most enormous slices of humble pie, and he ate every bite.
But while Spitzer retreated from public life for a short time, he didn't stay down on the mat for too long. Several months later, he signed on with Slate.com to provide analysis of the economic crises, and was insightful in his perspective as a former chief executive. He sat through several interviews, and once again admitted that he had been wrong and still felt ashamed of his earlier actions.
Perhaps because we've all been in a position where we've needed one before, Americans have a strong propensity to give others a second chance even after they've failed. And because Eliot Spitzer never showed the hubris that some other politicians have shown as they've gone down in flames, he may be getting one.
Spitzer is quietly speaking with Democratic operatives about a return to the political arena, seeking statewide office in New York. He's talked about either challenging Senator Kirstin Gillibrand in a Democratic primary , or seeking the decidedly less sexy job of state comptroller. Either way, he may just have a fighting chance. A recent SurveyUSA poll showed that a whopping 62% of New Yorkers would at least consider voting for Spitzer again, with 15% saying that they'd back the former governor no matter what office he sought.
Compare that to John Edwards, who is about as dead, politically as one can imagine. And comparatively, his scandal wasn't nearly as juicy as the New York Governor who was caught galavanting with a young, attractive, high priced prostitute. Edwards' sins were far more common in today's political climate (a la Clinton, John Ensign, etc.): he had an affair with a staffer. But also familiar was Edwrds' response to the charges against him: first he never had an affair, then he did have an affair but his mistress's child wasn't his biological daughter. Now it looks as though that may be false as well: reports claim that the former North Carolina Senator may be preparing to acknowledge that he did, indeed, father a child with Reille Hunter, a former campaign videographer.
Edwards failure to accept responsibility for his actions and utter dearth of honesty will prevent him from ever seeking office again. And conversely, it's Spitzer's candor that may save his career. It's a lesson that every politican should (but probably won't) learn: it's not necessarily the fall that decides one's political fate, but rather the nature in which they respond to the fallout.