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Sex and politics: It's the redemption, stupid

Reaction to New York City mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner’s latest scandal suggests that the public’s ever-evolving opinion about the relevance of politicians
New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner speaks during a news conference in New York July 23, 2013. (Photo by Eric Thayer/Reuters)
New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner speaks during a news conference in New York July 23, 2013.

Reaction to New York City mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner’s latest scandal suggests that the public’s ever-evolving opinion about the relevance of politicians’ sexual conduct has entered a somewhat contradictory phase. Do we care about such matters or don’t we? Yes and no.

On the one hand, the obvious trajectory has been toward greater tolerance.

In 1964, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller’s divorce helped cost him the Republican presidential nomination; sixteen years later, virtually no one cared that Republican candidate Ronald Reagan had also divorced his first wife.

In 1987, Gary Hart had to end his Democratic presidential bid when news surfaced of his marital infidelity; five years later, Bill Clinton was elected president in spite of strong evidence that he’d committed adultery. Seven years after that Clinton survived House impeachment for lying under oath about a dalliance with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

Sen. David Vitter (R., La.) weathered a prostitution scandal. Former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer did not, but today he has a strong lead in his comeback nomination bid for New York City comptroller.

Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford had to resign after he conveyed, through aides, false information about his whereabouts (while he was visiting his mistress in Argentina); then, after he got divorced (and after he admitted trespassing in his ex-wife’s house, in violation of their divorce settlement) Sanford got himself elected to Congress.

Then there’s Weiner. For awhile there--before news leaked out that he’d continued exchanging lewd messages and photographs on the Internet one year after a previous sexting scandal had compelled him to resign from Congress--some polls showed Weiner in the lead among Democrats in his comeback bid for mayor.

Early last year, journalist Michael Kinsley concluded that “many, probably most” voters no longer cared about politicians’ private lives. “When even evangelical Christians,” Kinsley wrote, “are willing to overlook a politician’s three marriages spiced with open adultery as long as he’s good on school prayer, we clearly have moved to a new point in this ongoing discussion.”

But the Weiner case shows that’s only partly true. Evangelical Christians don’t overlook. They forgive. That, it turns out, is what the rest of us do, too. And forgiveness, unlike indifference, is conditional.

If voters merely overlooked bad private behavior, then they’d have no reason to note future recurrences. But forgiveness is usually attached to a belief that the sinner will sin no more. Yes, we’ve largely stopped caring much about politicians’ past sexual misbehavior. (Except in certain instances where that politician’s own moralizing about others’ sexual behavior makes him—and let’s face it, it’s nearly always a guy—too much of a hypocrite to bear.) But we haven’t yet reached the point where we’re willing to turn a blind eye to a politician’s future sexual misbehavior.

That’s where Weiner got himself into trouble. Even as Weiner and his wife, Huma Abedin, were peddling a phony redemption narrative to the press (in Abedin’s case, probably  unwittingly), Weiner was--just a few months before entering the mayoral race--still engaging in the illicit behavior that he wanted everyone to think he’d moved beyond. If the public truly didn’t care about Weiner’s private life, Weiner wouldn’t have bothered manufacturing a redemption story at all.

Let’s try a thought experiment. Imagine that Weiner’s response to the latest revelations were as follows:

Yes, I continued sexting after I resigned Congress. My compulsion to do this is obviously pretty powerful, so I may continue sexting in the future. I won’t try to persuade you that it’s anything other than immoral. My wife certainly won’t like it. But this private behavior, if it does continue, will have absolutely no bearing on what kind of mayor I will be. I can be a perfectly capable mayor—maybe even a more capable one!--while spending my off hours talking dirty to pretty young women on the Internet.

 The advantage to such a declaration would be that it would instantly eliminate any and all justification for the respectable press to cover any future sexting by Weiner. Even pornographic “selfies” would no longer rate. If he didn’t promise to stop, what non-prurient news value could they possibly have?

But of course, the public would never abide Weiner asserting that he’s sexted before and will likely sext again. Politicians’ sexual misbehavior may not command the attention it used to, but their willingness and ability to cease such sexual misbehavior after getting caught still matters very much. And what is such forbearance if not private?

True indifference to politician’s sex lives would mean not caring whether Weiner overcomes his skeevy compulsions or not. We haven’t got there, and my guess is we never will.