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Dirty Little Secrets: Political Scandals

Political sex scandals are quickly becoming the most popular headlines of the new millennium. Jim McGreevey was governor of New Jersey until he admitted that he was a homosexual and unfaithful to his wife. Former Congressman Mark Foley headed to rehab after officials discovered his lewd e-mails and instant messages sent to teenage pages. Earlier this month, Eliot Spitzer resigned his post as the governor of New York when his involvement in a local prostitution ring came to light. Upon his succession to the New York governorship, David Paterson immediately admitted to past extramarital affairs. In the good old days, shock and outrage were the country’s automatic reactions, but Americans these days merely sigh when they open up their morning paper to find that their newest elected leader has a less-than-desirable past.

The question is this: do constituents really care about the personal lives of their leaders? It seems that as long as everyone is “open” about what went on and nothing illegal took place, anything goes. Sexual misconduct among politicians becomes a joke on late-night television; soon it’s pushed to the back of our minds by the next big scandal on the news. There’s a growing trend for shamed politicians to publicly condemn their immoral actions, apologize to their families and conclude with a sorrowful resignation. This is the “proper,” generally accepted method in the realm of public relations, evidenced by countless news conferences in which these officials follow an almost identical pattern. But from a public relations perspective, is there a better way for politicians to deal with scandals that could ruin their professional reputation forever?

Savannah’s Opinion: I am not so sure that there is any better way of cleaning up the dirty work of fallen politicians. Unfortunately, Americans are desensitized to political misbehavior and have learned not to expect too much from the nation’s leaders. Therefore, it comes as no shock when another sex scandal surfaces; instead perhaps just a bit of disappointment and thoughts of “Well, there’s another one.”

The key to building back a decent reputation is not in the few days that follow a fallout. It is in the weeks, months and even years after. A simple apology and resignation are good gestures, but not enough to wipe the slate clean. As with everything else in life, it takes time for people to move past and forgive a disappointment. If these politicians wish to continue a career in politics, they need to really take some time and work through their personal struggles. They should step out of the spot light for a while and let the chaos fade. Later, return to the public eye with a vengeance and be prepared to do what it takes to show Americans that they are worthy of a second chance and have risen above their mistakes.

The ultimate public relations strategy would be to avoid these situations all together, but of course, politicians are human just like the rest of us and will continue to make unwise decisions. Americans will never forget a mistake, but are certainly able to give second chances.

Sarah’s Opinion: I agree with Savannah; it takes more than just a well-publicized apology and a few tears to get back into the public’s good graces. Unfortunately, these days that only applies to really big and potentially illegal sex scandals, like the one involving Spitzer. Consider Bill Clinton: he messed up inexcusably, yet the public either has forgotten the Monica Lewinsky incident or has chosen to ignore it in the face of all he has done since his presidency. It takes time and a good publicist to win back the hearts of the American people (and more importantly, the press).

The flip side of the coin is the example of David Paterson. Here’s a guy who flat out admits that he and his wife cheated on each other (not to mention that he has “tried cocaine”). When I read his statement, I find myself nodding along and applauding him for being forthcoming with this information. Then it hits me. Is the fact that he admits to his mistakes before they are sniffed out something that is admirable? I’m not so sure, but I am sure that coming clean to the public in a humble fashion before journalists get a hold of the misdeed is much more acceptable than apologizing afterward. People like to know that their elected leaders have nothing to hide, or at the very least, that they can maintain the appearance of morality. If it’s the best they can do, I guess we’ll have to take it. Americans, say goodbye to “leading by example.”

Savannah Lanier and Sarah Yates

See these videos for more information:
“Eliot Spitzer Resignation”

“Paterson Affair CS”

Read these articles for more information:
“New York Gov. Spitzer resigns amid sex scandal”

“New NY Governor Admits Affairs Years Ago


  1. Post comment

    I agree with the previous comment. Political figures should not have to volunteer every detail about their extra-marital activities to the public just because they are running for office. Unless it is illegal, such as prostitution or sexual harassment as in the cases of Foley and Spitzer, a politician’s personal affairs are not the business of the public. I don’t think it was necessary for Paterson to confess his sins before taking office because they have (or shouldn’t have) any bearing on how well he can run the office of governor.

    I also believe that it was a bad PR move. While it may seem like the noble route to put everything out in the open, all Paterson’s confession did was make his constituents think less of him. Now, instead of noting his achievements in politics, the media and consequently the public are only focusing on his less-than-appealing character flaws. Cheating on your spouse is not a crime (unfortunately) and therefore is not something that should hinder whether or not a politician is elected to office.

    You also have to consider whom else his public confession may affect: his wife and children. If his wife already knows about his unfaithful activities and has decided to forgive him privately, why should she need to relive that humiliation and be subjected to public ridicule? The point is, private, family affairs, as long as they are not illegal, should remain just that: private.

    – Katie Dageforde

  2. Post comment

    While I am not one to condone extra-marital affairs, I will note that political leaders of today have it a lot harder than their predecessors. Presidents of the past did not have to worry about extensive and sometimes invasive investigations into their personal lives by reporters. I certainly do not believe (and know) that Clinton was not the first president to have an affair, but he was one of the first, (if not the first) to go on the stand about it. While I do hold a person’s character into account when selecting a new candidate for a position,once he or she is in office I would rather focus my attention on their decisions with regards to running their office or running the country rather than their bedroom behavior. I personally would rather their personal lives stay personal, because so long as they make sound political decisions that benefit the public, I don’t care what they do behind closed doors. I look to others as my moral compass not politicians, I just want them to do their jobs and do them well.

  3. Post comment

    Wow Taryn, well written! I didn’t think of the situation that way. Politicians who don’t even have enough self-control to stay out of trouble have no business making decisions for the rest of us.


  4. Post comment

    I think it says a lot about the state of our country that the response to sex scandals performed by our elected officials is simply a sigh. So, do constituents care about the personal lives of our leaders? I don’t know abut mainstream America, but as for me, the personal life of a candidate is one of my most important voting criterions.

    The best public relations tactic when dealing with personal scandals is exactly what Paterson did. Transparency tends to work. However, this is the best post-scandal tactic. I am a firm believer that information such as sex scandals should be admitted by the candidate prior to the election, not when the position is being filled. After all, in a courtroom is the evidence not released before the verdict is made?

    As Savannah said, the best idea is to simply not engage in shady activity. I think people who have little self-control in their personal lives do not act as good examples. Why should these individuals represent us and make decisions for us? Furthermore, if these politicians’ wives can’t trust them, why should we? Individuals who engage in extra-marital relations have proven that they are not to be trusted in a personal relationship; therefore, I find it difficult to trust them in a political realm.

    -Taryn Ely


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