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The ups and downs of a political sex scandal

By Jethro Mullen, CNN
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 25, 2013
  • Traditionally, the scandal surfaces in the press, but social media are changing that
  • With allegations swirling, a high-profile figure has to decide how to react
  • Some will dig in and deny the allegations, and other will fess up and be contrite
  • Many politicians don't try to come back after scandals, but some high-profiles ones have

(CNN) -- It sounds like a plot line straight out of the TV show "Scandal:" In the midst of an attempted comeback, a disgraced politician finds himself tarred by a fresh round of lurid revelations.

But Anthony Weiner may have outdone any scriptwriter's imagination with the creation of his sexting alter ego, Carlos Danger. And even Olivia Pope, the elite crisis manager in "Scandal," might have a tough time salvaging Weiner's bid for New York City mayor.

If the latest furor surrounding Weiner feels like deja vu, that's because a lot of political sex scandals seem to follow a familiar pattern, although not always with the same outcome.

Here's a look at the typical life cycle of a sex scandal:

The allegations emerge

With his wife, Huma Abedin, by his side, New York mayoral candidate and former congressman Anthony Weiner confirms on July 23 that some of the sexually explicit online exchanges that were published by a gossip website happened after previous revelations forced him to resign from the U.S. House in 2011. With his wife, Huma Abedin, by his side, New York mayoral candidate and former congressman Anthony Weiner confirms on July 23 that some of the sexually explicit online exchanges that were published by a gossip website happened after previous revelations forced him to resign from the U.S. House in 2011.
Anthony Weiner and Huma Abedin
Wives who stood by their men Wives who stood by their men

In the traditional model, a scandal surfaces in the press. Allegations plastered across the front page of a newspaper make the politician concerned spit out his morning coffee and grasp for the phone.

Newspaper reporters may have gotten their information directly from an accuser involved in the scandal, or from official documents.

Legal records about former Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, who was arrested at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport in 2007, went unnoticed by national media for weeks until the Washington-based paper Roll Call brought them to light. Craig pleaded guilty to a charge of disorderly conduct after a police officer alleged the senator attempted to solicit sex from him in a bathroom.

But social media are upending the way scandals erupt. In Weiner's case, a stray tweet caused the first uproar, and a gossip blog set off the second.

The variety of news sources subjects politicians to greater scrutiny than ever, but it can also make it harder to separate fact from fiction.

Opinion: Will 'sexters' in the city give Weiner a pass?

The strenuous denial

With allegations swirling, a high-profile figure has to decide how to react. A public denial, sometimes tinged with anger or outrage at the scurrilous nature of the accusations, is often the go-to response.

During his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, Herman Cain went one step further -- denying he had had a 13-year affair with a woman before the accusation had even been made public.

But the preemptive strike failed to save Cain's presidential bid -- he suspended his campaign soon after.

"Denials are expected and will do little to turn the tide," says Judy Smith, the high-profile Washington crisis manager on whom the Olivia Pope character in "Scandal" is partly based.

But the apparent ineffectiveness of denials doesn't seem to stop politicians from making them, sometimes to a point where they set themselves up for an even bigger fall.

Setting the gold standard for flawed denials of sex scandals is former President Bill Clinton's infamous "I did not have sexual relations with that woman."

His attempts to refute allegations about his affair with Monica Lewinsky ended up with him facing impeachment by the House of Representatives.

A summer of lies

Admission and contrition

In cases where the evidence of a scandal begins to overwhelm a politician's defenses, the smarter tactic often appears to be to fess up and deal with the consequences.

When a journalist from Hustler magazine contacted Louisiana Sen. David Vitter in 2007 after finding his number on the client list of a Washington prostitution ring, Vitter promptly made a public admission of a "serious sin."

He rode out the ensuing furor and retained his Senate seat in 2010.

"Vitter is an excellent example of how if you admit quickly, you deny a longer news cycle about the scandal," said Alison Dagnes of Shippensburg University, who wrote the book "Sex Scandals in American Politics."

"Get it done and over with, or else the story goes on and on," she said.

That's an approach Weiner failed to adopt the first time around, initially suggesting that his Twitter account may have been hacked and thus dragging out the embarrassment.

What he did right this week, though, was getting his wife on board for his apology.

"The support of the wife is crucial if the scandal-plagued politician is making the argument that a scandal is a personal matter," Dagnes said. "If the wife leaves, then the argument fails."

Weiner wouldn't have been in race without wife by his side

The fallout

The consequences of scandals vary from politician to politician.

Some such as Clinton and former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, who tried to cover up an adulterous affair in Argentina, end up facing impeachment.

Others jump before they are pushed, choosing to resign rather than continue to fight a damaging battle. Falling on the sword can also lay the groundwork for an eventual return.

"In a sense, I see resigning office as being one of those corrective actions -- showing a willingness to accept punishment and come back later and win votes," said Scott Basinger of Houston University, who researched the impact of political scandals on congressional elections.

Eliot Spitzer, the former New York governor who stepped down amid a prostitution scandal in 2008, appears to be hoping he's spent enough time outside the political spotlight to win voters' approval in the race for comptroller of New York City.

But some tarnished politicians dig in and try to hold on to office. And some statistics suggest they have reason to give it a shot.

Basinger's research has found that congressmen mired in sex scandals typically lose about 5% of the vote. Still, 73% of incumbent lawmakers involved in any kind of scandal make it to general elections, and 81% of those go on to win, according to his research.

"It's damaging, but it's not fatal," he said.

Has the road to political redemption gotten shorter?

The comeback

Returning from the political wilderness is a daunting task, and many scandal-hit politicians choose not to attempt it.

But Sanford's success this year in winning a vacant House seat in South Carolina shows the apparent willingness of voters to look beyond past transgressions.

Sanford made his Argentinian mistress his fiancee after his wife divorced him. He even survived a controversy during his House campaign over allegations that he violated his divorce terms by trespassing at his ex-wife's beach house.

Clinton, meanwhile, moved on from the Lewinsky scandal to become a respected elder statesman of the Democratic Party.

But Weiner faces a difficult task after the eruption of the latest scandal in the midst of his much publicized comeback.

According to Basinger, the key advice on coming clean about sex scandals is contained in the title of a book by Lanny Davis, the lawyer and crisis expert who helped Clinton fight impeachment: "Truth to Tell: Tell It Early, Tell It All, Tell It Yourself: Notes From My White House Education."

By allowing more lewd revelations to leak out through a gossip website, Weiner "failed on all three of those things" that Davis' book prescribes, Basinger said.

And going in front of the cameras to say sorry is less convincing the second time around, according to Dagnes.

"One heartfelt apology works well as long as you don't have to apologize again," she said.

Spitzer, Weiner and why New York is talking about sex

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