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Sex scandals turning into civic problem

By John P. Avlon, CNN Contributor
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • John Avlon: Constant drumbeat of sex scandal, as in Weiner, Spitzer, Sanford, hurts us
  • He says others would be fired, prosecuted; politicians often get off scot-free or are re-elected
  • He says civic culture is at stake; important issues ignored as media eat up sex scandal
  • Avlon: Politicians must hold themselves to high standard, not lowest common denominator

Editor's note: John P. Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for The Daily Beast. He is the author of "Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America."

(CNN) -- Really? Another ambitious politician is laid low by personal behavior that would make a drunk frat-boy think twice. What's with these people?

At this point, Americans are scandalized but unsurprised. Political sex scandals feel like giddy new installments of reality TV. The real guessing game is now what new low will be achieved and by whom --Arnold Schwarzenegger's brazen race to the bottom is replaced by John Edwards' grand jury indictment, and then New York Rep. Anthony Weiner's social media sleaziness.

Relatively recent infractions like those of former New York Rep. Christopher Lee (shirtless on CraigsList), former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, or former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford are almost forgotten as new politicians throw their careers on the pyre in pursuit of sex, real or imagined.

Navarrette: Weiner's only choice is to resign

It's pathetic, sad and self-destructive, but it's also a real civic problem. No one in elected office seems to be even trying to be Abraham Lincoln anymore.

Robert F. Kennedy's statement that "politics should be the most honorable profession" seems increasingly like a bitter joke. There's a greater code of personal honor at Vegas conventions. And, along with the relentless negative attacks, it's just another disincentive for good people to run for public office.

I don't mean to sound naive. Adultery is the least original sin, especially among politicians.

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As the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn reminds us, French parliamentary parlor games would still strain America's credulity, and Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi seems to have gotten into politics primarily for the sex. Before Bill Clinton, the extramarital Oval Office affairs from FDR to JFK set the dubious standard and helped enable future occupants to rationalize their actions.

In Congress, the historic infractions are too varied to mention, but they range from an influential Arkansas Rep. Wilbur Mills drunkenly leaving a stripper named Fanne Fox in the Tidal Basin, to archsegregationist Strom Thurmond secretly siring an African-American child with a member of his family's household help, to Rep. Gerry Studds sleeping with a 17-year-old male page.

Anyone else would have likely been fired and/or prosecuted at the time of these transgressions. Members of Congress are reprimanded and quite often re-elected.

But Weinergate deserves closer inspection. It is the latest, but likely not the last, example of social media's effect on politics. Plausible deniability -- long the refuge of the powerful and pantless -- is now out the window. Indelible digital evidence is the new blue dress.

Martin: Weiner's lies, not tweets, did him in

Weiner's apparent hobby of coming on to women via Twitter was especially stupid given how much he had to lose. Put aside, for the moment, that the man was recently married to a beautiful and accomplished woman, Huma Abedin, a top aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Weiner carved out a niche as pull-no-punches liberal, yelling on the floor of Congress and cable TV. He was also the odds-on favorite to be the next mayor of the city of New York, come the 2013 election.

Thinking that he could pursue high office while revealing himself to college students is not just self-deceiving and self-destructive, it's more than a little loco. You can't constantly court public attention and then expect to avoid it -- especially when it involves sex. He should have been trying to avoid that land mine all his life. Instead he seems to have been lunging for it.

The understandable public appetite for sex scandals (salacious and relate-able), has the unfortunate side effect of helping us ignore scandals that are much more important, like charges of misappropriated public monies from Iraq, adding to the deficit and the debt. We ignore geopolitics, such as the situation in Sudan, which seems again on the verge of civil war, or China's aggressive expansion into cyberespionage.

And even non-sex-related scandals are ignored. For example, on the day of Weiner's tearful confession, Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said that the GOP "literally" wanted to return to Jim Crow laws of the past. This got little or no pick-up, because there was a sex scandal to cover.

Hypocrisy is the unforgivable sin in politics. But assuming that Weiner sticks by his declaration that he will not resign -- a position that may be tested by more awkward information trickling out -- he is likely to be re-elected in his Democratic-leaning district, unless he inspires a principled primary challenger.

After receiving a formal censure for financial misdeeds, New York Rep. Charles Rangel was re-elected by 80% of the vote last year. Compounded by a rigged system of redistricting, accountability too often does not extend to general elections in modern politics.

The steady stream of sex scandals is at this point turning from a late-night punch line to a real problem. It is not just a reflection of flawed personalities but of our political culture, which continues to attract egotistical risk-takers who start to think they are rock stars instead of public servants. The difference now is that social media capture their lowest moments for all to see forever.

Evans: Want to keep it private? Don't tweet it

This culture isn't going to change overnight. But it needs to change soon. Politicians need to start holding themselves to a higher standard, not the lowest common denominator.

Remembering the wise words of a long-gone New York politician, Theodore Roosevelt, is a good place to start: "No man can lead a public career really worth leading, no man can act with rugged independence in serious crises, nor strike at great abuses, nor afford to make powerful and unscrupulous foes, if he is himself vulnerable in his private character."

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.

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