What to say about Mark Sanford: a guide to politicians' reactions to sex scandals.

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June 24 2009 4:09 PM

What To Say About Mark Sanford?

A guide to politicians' reactions to sex scandals.

Also in Slate: William Saletan on Sanford's surprisingly honest confession. John Dickerson on the disturbing glee at Sanford's downfall. Plus: Who is Cubby Culbertson, Sanford's "spiritual giant"? 

South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford
South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford 

Judging from his dramatic, rambling, and emotional press conference, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford needs all the help he can get. But if his supporters follow his example, Sanford may not get much sympathy after his confession of an extramarital affair. As a member of the U.S. House, where he served from 1995 to 2001, Sanford was not very forgiving of prospective House Speaker Bob Livingston when it was revealed he'd had an affair. "The bottom line is Livingston lied," Sanford told CNN. "He lied to his wife."

It's never easy for a politician to cop to an affair (see Edwards, John). But it's also hard for colleagues to react to the revelation. And what they say can make their lives difficult if they ever make the transition from scandal commentator to scandal subject. So what's a politician to say when asked about a colleague who—on his side of the aisle or not—is caught with his pants down? Herewith, a guide to some possible responses.

Sanctimonious condemnation.

Especially if most other politicians are mincing words reacting to a scandal, you can score points and get noticed with a pithy tongue-lashing. Sen. Joe Lieberman got a lot of mileage (and network time) from his tongue-lashing of President Clinton, delivered from the Senate floor, over the Monica Lewinsky affair. Longtime Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch caught wordsmith William Safire's attention with his jab that Clinton was "perhaps the first presidential canoodler in history."

The risk here is obvious: Take Sen. John Ensign of Nevada, who admitted last week to an eight-month extramarital affair with a campaign staffer. His situation was made several degrees worse by his past reactions to the affairs of others. When former Sen. Larry Craig was facing charges of soliciting sex in a Minneapolis airport restroom, Ensign said Craig was "embarrassing not only to himself and his family but to the U.S. Senate." He condemned President Clinton during the Lewinsky affair, saying the president "has no credibility left." Whoops!

Edwards, who admitted in August to his own tryst, also spoke too soon when he said of Bill Clinton at a closed impeachment hearing: "I think this president has shown a remarkable disrespect for his office, for the moral dimensions of leadership, for his friends, for his wife, for his precious daughter. It is breathtaking to me the level to which that disrespect has risen." The Clinton-Lewinsky scandal was the source of at least one more back-to-bite-you quip when "DC Madam" patron and GOP Sen. David Vitter called the president "morally unfit to govern" and argued that "his leadership will only further drain any sense of values left to our political culture."

Praise the apology, not the apologizer.

Once the wrongdoer makes his mea culpas, you can dodge the divisive question of right or wrong. This tactic is especially useful if you have to deal with him in the future—nothing like an awkward Senate floor rendezvous to interfere with affairs of state. Sen. Jim DeMint, R.-S.C., played spokesman for Vitter's soul when he said, "It's a huge moral failure that reflects on the whole body. And for that he's very sorry." A colleague's apology also gives you more ammunition to defend him, as Sen. John Cornyn of Texas did for Ensign: "He's apologized to his constituents and his colleagues and acknowledged a grave error," he said, while dismissing calls for Ensign to resign.

Stall for time.

If you can't find any upside to commenting on a compatriot's peccadilloes, it's probably safe to just punt—boilerplate quotes usually disappear in the news cycle anyway. Often, it works to simply claim ignorance of the details, as then-Sen. Barack Obama did when asked about Edwards' affair. "I really haven't seen the details of it, so I don't know what's going on," he said. "I'm a little in the dark." Even then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich appeared the model of even-handedness when he urged patience in the furor over President Clinton's unfolding indiscretions: "I think every citizen ought to slow down, relax, and wait for the facts to develop," he said. "When we know, then is the time to comment." If you're really under the gun, a simple stonewall may suffice. Both Sen. Jon Kyl ("I'm not going to say anything") and Sen. Chuck Grassley ("It would be intellectually dishonest for me to comment") kept their hands clean when asked about fellow Republican John Ensign's infidelity.

Focus on the family.

Sticking by the wronged wife and children is the safest route. It implicitly rips the cad who embarrassed his closest kin and scores a point for family values. Better yet, it refrains from moral judgment that can come back to hurt you.

Focusing on the family can also spruce up a "no comment" comment. When news emerged last March that Eliot Spitzer had been seeing a prostitute, John McCain took this path. "I was just watching, as all of you have, this information about the governor of New York," he said. "I don't know what to make of it—our prayers go out to his family." Hillary Clinton, the wronged wife in scandals past, was similarly cautious in responding to the affair. "I obviously am sending my best wishes and thoughts to the governor and to his family," she said. "Let's wait and see what comes out of the next days. Right now I don't have any comment. I think it's appropriate to wish his family well and see how things develop."

The personal is not political.

The closest you can get to having a guy's back in this situation is to say he messed up but shouldn't be judged in the public sphere. It's especially useful when your own past is speckled, and when you've put the canoodler in a position of trust: former presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani stuck up for his Southern campaign chairman, Sen. David Vitter, while artfully salvaging his own reputation. "I believe that this is a personal issue," he said, and went on to say that most of those he appointed were "outstanding people." In justifying his vote to acquit President Clinton, Sen. Evan Bayh kicked the moral matter upstairs. "Ultimately, he will be judged for his sins by that tribunal before which we all must stand one day," he said. "But we must apply a mortal, constitutional standard here." The heavenly retribution strategy hits on two fronts, pleasing the religious base while freeing you from the risk of actually taking action.

Flat-out denial.

Nothing says loyalty like blind faith in the face of inconvenient truths. Said then-Vice President Al Gore of his boss in 1998: "The president has denied the charges, and I believe it."

Make up a limerick.

Should only be used if you have nothing to lose. In 2007, John Kerry composed this gem:

There once was a man named Vitter
Who vowed that he wasn't a quitter
But with stories of women
And all of his sinnin'
He knows his career's in the—oh, never mind.

AP Video: South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford Admits Affair

Lydia DePillis is a writer living in New York.

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