Published June 22, 2006
WASHINGTON – When Gary Hart was photographed on a boat called "Monkey Business" with an attractive brunette sitting on his lap, the scandal forced the Colorado Democratic senator to drop his promising presidential bid, and pushed him into relative obscurity for at least a decade.
But that was 1987, when a cheating heart meant serious embarrassment, humiliation and moral outrage from the American people. By the time Hart came back into the public eye — slowly at first, through a commission on national security in 1998, and then by infrequent television appearances — scandals of such a nature were hardly cause to keep people away for so long anymore.
“Shame and embarrassment are so 20th century,” explained Ellis Henican, a columnist for Newsday.
“Rehabilitation is a dish best served cold — it takes a little while, you have to wander in the wilderness a bit, it helps to have some period of reflections or growth,” Henican said. “Then, only a chump would be embarrassed. It’s increasingly part of the culture.”
Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said the time used to be that getting caught in a scandal would effectively banish one from public view for a very long time.
“I’m old enough to remember when to be publicly disgraced was more or less permanent,” he said. “That was the price for scandal.”
But today, members of Congress caught cheating still are able to run for re-election, and politicians and public figures caught in compromising sexual, ethical or financial scandals can seemingly rehabilitate and reinvent themselves overnight. Many do this with the help of the 24-hour cable news networks, including FOX News, which often use these public figures as analysts and pundits.
“Just because you’ve done something bad, and gotten into trouble, doesn’t mean you haven’t anything to say,” noted Henican. “As long as you’ve gotten over that hump.”
In 2004, former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik was forced to dump his nomination to be Homeland Security Secretary after it was reported that he was mired in allegations of extramarital affairs and conflicts of interest.
But that didn't stop the news networks from calling on Kerik as a law enforcement expert, less than a year after his nomination debacle.
Not only has the 24-hour news cycle been forgiving to fallen public figures — many scandals are over in a blink of an eye and experts are always in demand — but the American public has been more tolerant, too.
“I would say not only are people quite forgiving but they also have a short memory,” said Sheri Annis, a Republican media strategist. As an example, she pointed to the successful career of former Los Angeles homicide detective Mark Fuhrman, who during the course of the O.J. Simpson murder trial in 1995 was forced to acknowledge racist comments he made throughout his adult life. He apologized for the comments, but they were said to have hurt the prosecution's case against the former football star.
But because of his expertise and likable demeanor, Fuhrman was able to parlay his notoriety into a new life as a successful non-fiction crime writer and television law enforcement expert, Annis said.
Some say the new era of tolerance came about after President Bill Clinton was impeached for lying about his affair with then-intern Monica Lewinsky. He remains a popular ex-president, and many Americans say they believe he was unfairly targeted by the Republican Congress for his transgressions.
“People liked him,” said Eric Dezenhall, Republican political communications consultant who specializes in crisis management. “The most important factor to surviving a crisis despite blatant evidence of guilt is the question, ‘Do we like you?’ and people liked Clinton.”
In this post-Clinton age, likeability and society's tolerance seem to outweigh the morality held dear by previous generations, said Annis.
Some more notable reinventions and comebacks:
— Al Sharpton. In 1987, the prominent civil rights activist took up the cause of Tawana Brawley, a 15-year-old black girl who claimed two white police officers had sexually assaulted her in upstate New York. It turned out to be a hoax. Sharpton, who was accused of sensationalizing the case, later lost a defamation lawsuit brought by a prosecutor who Sharpton had called a rapist and a racist. Sharpton was also blamed for inciting anti-Semitic riots in New York City in the 1990s. In 2004, he went on to run, albeit unsuccessfully, for the Democratic presidential nomination, and is often seen on cable news programs as a political commentator.
— Bob Packwood. The Republican former U.S. senator from Oregon resigned in 1995 after numerous charges of sexual misconduct and trying to use his influence to obtain a job for his wife. The Senate Ethics Committee also accused him of trying to alter his diary to cover up the evidence. He went directly into lobbying, and continues to run a successful firm in Washington, D.C.
—- Robert Livingston. The former congressman was speaker-elect in 1998 when he was forced to resign before Hustler magazine accused him of numerous extramarital affairs. Livingston now runs one of the most profitable lobbying firms in Washington, D.C. Ironically, Hustler magazine editor Allan MacDonell said he bluffed about his investigation of Livingston, who publicly pleaded guilty to the affair after he learned Hustler publisher Larry Flynt had set his sights on the Louisiana Republican.
— Dick Morris. The former White House political guru to President Clinton resigned his post in 1996 after a supermarket tabloid alleged he was having an extramarital affair with a high-priced prostitute and had let the woman listen in on his phone calls with the president. Morris continues to be a lecturer, columnist and TV commentator.
"I don't know if people are necessarily forgiven, or that we are so accustomed to the dirt that people are just kind of inured," said Ruth Conniff, editor of The Progressive magazine.
Today, members caught cheating no longer have to resign in shame. Rep. Don Sherwood, R-Pa., is running for re-election in his conservative district after apologizing to his family and constituents for a five-year affair with a woman more than 30 years his junior. He said in an interview with FOXNews.com that he expects to win a fifth term this fall.
But not all flawed legislators can expect immunity from the public court of opinion, though the lines that currently are not yet to be crossed are getting blurrier, said Sabato.
For instance, former New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey, who resigned after he admitted to a gay extramarital affair, may never get back into politics, Sabato said. McGreevy was also accused of placing his lover into a top homeland security position in his administration despite the man's lack of qualifications.
Another politician who may be gone for good is former Rep. Gary Condit, D-Calif., Sabato said. Condit lost his seat after he admitted to a relationship with Chandra Levy, a former Federal Bureau of Prisons intern murdered in Washington, D.C., in 2001 by a still unknown assailant.
For now, it may be too soon to say what House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, can expect after leaving office this month on the heels of a string of indictments and an ongoing ethics and corruption investigation. Some say it will all depend on whether he is convicted. If he is not, the cloud surrounding him will dissipate in time for him to start a career as a television pundit and Washington lobbyist.
Dezenhall said he thinks this is not only possible, but a great idea. “I think he will be very successful at it.”