WASHINGTON -- Sex. Drugs. Cheating on a spouse.
Those words used to add up to shame. Put them in the same sentence as a politician’s name, and they ended careers.
Not anymore. The latest batch of unlikely back-from-the-swamp hopefuls are Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer. Weiner resigned his New York City congressional seat two years ago after revelations that he’d tweeted a sexually suggestive picture of himself to a woman who was following him on Twitter. Spitzer left the state’s governorship in 2008 after reports surfaced that federal investigators had tagged him as “Client 9,” soliciting high-end prostitutes.
Each now has a decent shot at a big prize, Weiner New York’s Democratic mayoral nomination, Spitzer the city’s comptroller job. Spitzer led his closest rival by 9 percentage points in a Wall Street Journal-NBC 4-Marist poll released Thursday.
They join the growing roster of comebacks, or at least serious attempts, by scandal-tarred politicians:
– Mark Sanford was elected to a South Carolina congressional seat in May, after admitting an affair in 2009 that resulted in the then-governor paying a large ethics fine and led state lawmakers to consider impeaching him.
– Newt Gingrich made a decent run at the presidency last year, even as details resurfaced about how his affairs had helped break up his first two marriages.
– Marion Barry, convicted of cocaine possession in 1990, was re-elected as the mayor of Washington four years later and still serves on its city council.
The sagas of these once-and-again-mighty political figures mirror the changing standards of behavior in society and American politics.
“The norms of society have changed,” said Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth College expert on political scandal.
If there’s a line of demarcation when shame lost its status as a poison dart for a political career, it came in the late 1990s. President Bill Clinton’s dalliance with Monica Lewinsky was graphically described day after day. Clinton was impeached but not removed from office, and he left the presidency in 2001 with stellar approval numbers. He now is more personally popular than any other living former president.
“We have a society that’s more open to things that are not like us,” said Evans Witt, the president of Princeton Survey Research Associates. “We had always been comfortable if someone looks like me and acts like somebody I know. We’ve gotten beyond that.”
Exhibit A is President Barack Obama. Not to mention members of Congress who are openly gay.
At the same time, behavior once regarded as deviant or suspicious became commonplace. Divorce, let alone sexual affairs, were no longer career-killers. Neither was admission of drug use. Reports of such actions lost their ability to shock.
“Fifty years ago if you had an affair, it wasn’t covered,” noted John Geer, a co-director of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions at Vanderbilt University.
Now it’s not only covered, but such news also is so widespread that the public often becomes indifferent to matters that once would have jolted it. Baseball stars used steroids to jack up their power numbers, but the sport keeps thriving. Celebrities have children out of wedlock without tarnishing their images. Children have access well before bedtime to situation comedies whose plots revolve around who’s sleeping with whom.