Kneale: Three Faces of Sleaze—A New Calculus


South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford just can’t keep his mouth shut, can he? This week he’s out with new revelations, via the AP, that he has "crossed the line" (sans outright sex) with several other women in addition to his illicit affair with his Buenos Aires babe.

So now we have Gov. Sanford, U.S. Sen. John Ensign of Nevada, and former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer: All three powerful men attempted (or succeeded at) self-annihilation of their political careers and personal lives because of an inability to keep their peckers in their pockets, as Larry Kudlow so delicately put it on his CNBC show the other night.

Yet are all three now officially dead, politically, because of their human (or doglike) frailties? Not necessarily.

A new political calculus may emerge for the infidelity factor, one that stops short of disqualifying any and all candidates who have cheated on their spouses. A look at these Three Faces of Sleaze poses the question of whether some misdeeds may be more forgivable than others.

Gov. Sanford: The lovesick puppy. He gets points, maybe, for the high love quotient in his straying — at least it wasn't by dint of unadulterated lust. But his confession and apology violated unspoken rules: No Jimmy Swaggert-style blubbering on camera, and no long, rambling press conference rather than a terse statement (I-blew-it-I'm-in-counseling-now-goodbye).

Sanford's pretensions to be presidential timber are dead — not because of the affair itself, but because he went AWOL for five days and lied about it. You think the governorship of South Carolina is too pressure-ridden, Gov. Sanford? We can't trust you under the real pressure of the presidency.

Ex-Gov. Eliot Spitzer: The hypocrite as whoremonger. Barely a year after he was forced to resign from office after law-enforcement agents outed him on consorting with a high-priced call girl on multiple occasions, he tries to rehabilitate himself by becoming a pixel pundit.

It won't work: Spitzer is a dead man, politically.

Put aside, for a moment, the question of which kind of cheater you’d prefer to have as your husband — one who engages in a torrid affair with a steady, romantic partner versus one who trysts with a professional. Spitzer, privately, continues trying to defend himself on that score, from what I hear.

Spitzer is a goner mainly for the preachy, high-handed hypocrisy of his misdeeds. We might forgive you your moral error — if you haven’t built your entire career on smiting others for their misdeeds and styling yourself as the self-appointed Sheriff of Wall Street.

Sen. John Ensign: Mr. Not-Dead-Yet. He, too, has a hypocrisy problem: He had called on President Clinton to resign in the Monica Lewinsky scandal and had criticized Rep. Larry Craig as "embarrassing" after the latter was arrested for an alleged come-on in a public men’s bathroom.

But Ensign could well survive this gaffe. He doesn’t face re-election until the fall of 2012. His confession and apology two weeks ago — for having an eight-month-long affair with the campaign-worker wife of one of his aides — may have the best shot at saving both a marriage and a political career. He kept it short and to the point, leaving the presser without taking questions. He looked visibly shaken and truly mortified.

And better yet, his wife is backing him. If she’s willing to forgive, seems like the rest of us could forgive him, too.