Analysis: Another sex scandal last thing DC needs

July 27, 2011 - 3:13 AM
Wu Sex Scandal

FILE - In this March 7, 2011 file photo, Rep. David Wu, D-Ore. speaks in Hillsboro, Ore. Wu has announced that he is resigning in the wake of allegations that he had a sexual encounter with an 18-year-old woman. (AP Photo/Don Ryan, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — There's been risqué tickling. Raunchy twittering. Emailed photos. Stolen sex tapes. And more.

Seems like sex scandals snagging Washington politicians are piling up faster than the federal debt.

Now, in the latest episode of Washington's own unseemly take on "Sex and the City," Rep. David Wu of Oregon is resigning in response to allegations by an 18-year-old woman that she had an "unwanted sexual encounter" with the congressman, who is separated from his wife. Wu denied the charges.

Last month, it was Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., stepping down after admitting he'd sent lewd photos of himself through Twitter, and lied about it.

There have been two other scandal-related resignations from Congress this year, both of them Republicans — a rare recent example of bipartisanship in this city.

This stew of alleged philandering is the last thing Washington needs when public opinion about elected officials already is "relentlessly negative," to use the words of the Pew Research Center, and hostility toward government is strong.

"It probably confirms people's worst suspicions about the political class," says Karlyn Bowman, a public opinion expert at the American Enterprise Institute. "The public has long associated politics with corruption and banality."

At least House leaders are honing their skills at nudging politicians out the door when the whiff of sexual impropriety starts to swirl into a vortex.

One day after House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi requested an Ethics Committee investigation into the allegations about Wu, the seven-term Democrat pledged to resign once the debt-ceiling crisis was resolved.

Oh, that. The debt crisis.

When talk of philandering plays out against the backdrop of the all-too-real threat of a historic government default, it seems all the more tawdry.

"I'm convinced that if Bill Clinton had been messing around with Monica Lewinsky during an acute economic downturn, things would've turned out very differently," says Eric Dezenhall, a crisis management consultant.

Instead, the economy was booming, and Clinton managed to survive impeachment and emerge in his post-presidential life as an elder statesman.

While public officials aren't necessarily more likely to cheat than other Americans, politicians often take "10 times longer than the rest of us to figure out that they've got a problem," says Dezenhall. He attributes that to "some sort of megalomania combined with an impulse control problem combined with denial."

Think Anthony Weiner. He spent 10 days denying he'd sent improper tweets and another 10 clinging to his job after he acknowledged he'd done it after all.

"You're dealing with personalities that believe they are destined to live larger lives than the rest of us," Dezenhall says. "Anything you do in pursuit of that goal is rationalized as a destiny that smaller minds wouldn't understand."

Think John Edwards. The former senator and Democratic presidential candidate completed the sex, lies and videotape trifecta by cheating on his cancer-stricken wife while offering himself on the campaign trail as a devoted family man. Now he's facing charges of misusing campaign dollars to cover up the affair, and there's another lawsuit over a purported sex tape he made with his lover.

"I started to believe that I was special and became increasingly egocentric and narcissistic," Edwards said in 2008 when he acknowledged the affair — at that point still lying about the fact that he had fathered a child with the other woman.

Think former Rep. Christopher Lee. The New York Republican resigned earlier this year after a gossip website reported that he had sent a shirtless photo of himself to a woman he met on Craigslist. No inner voice talked the married congressman out of that bad idea.

Think Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev. He admitted in June 2009 that he'd had an extramarital affair with a former member of his campaign staff. He didn't resign until this May, in the midst of a Senate Ethics Committee investigation that was looking into steps that he took to cover up the affair.

"I was blind to how arrogant and self-centered that I had become," Ensign said in his farewell speech.

Then there's Rep. Eric Massa, D-N.Y. He resigned in 2010 after employees accused him of groping and propositioning male staff members. The congressman acknowledged that he had groped one — but described it as tickling, not sexual behavior.

In general, Americans appear to be growing less tolerant of extramarital sex: In the early 1970s, about 70 percent of Americans said extramarital sex was always wrong. In recent years, the figure has risen to about 80 percent, according to the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.

That's not to say Americans think they're any better behaved than their elected officials.

In a June survey by the Pew Research Center, conducted after the Weiner case exploded in the news, 57 percent of Americans said they thought politicians "just get caught more often because they're under greater scrutiny." Just 19 percent said elected officials have "lower moral standards than ordinary Americans."

Not that that should make anyone feel better.

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Online:

Pew poll on political sex scandals: http://people-press.org/2011/06/14/most-say-political-sex-scandals-due-to-greater-scrutiny-not-lower-morality/

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EDITOR'S NOTE — Nancy Benac has covered politics and government in Washington for three decades.

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Benac can be followed at http://twitter.com/nbenac