Creep Therapy

Why being toppled by scandals makes politicians think they’re more lovable than ever.

Former New York governor Eliot Spitzer speaks at a forum on the future of New York September 16, 2010 at the New York Public Library in New York City.

Can you really come back stronger from a scandal? Eliot Spitzer hopes so.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Tedium is the scandalized politician’s best friend. When the frenzy begins, you can hardly remember the color of your lawn beneath those cameras, satellite trucks, and well-coifed correspondents. Being a frenzy, it doesn’t last: You resign. The story gets forgotten. You reach a tipping point, eventually, when more people seem to ask why you resigned than had ever asked you to quit. Can you come back? Hey, how can you not come back?

Mark Sanford and Anthony Weiner slogged through this multistep recovery plan, and on Sunday Eliot Spitzer announced he would join them. He’s decided to run for New York City comptroller after meditating on it in Central Park, and just four days before he needs to turn in 3,725 signed ballot petitions. He’s joined the race with a round of skeptical-but-friendly interviews and an outdoor, boiling hot press conference where he shrugged off a heckler. “I’ve got skin as thick as a rhinoceros,” he said. “I love the screaming. I love the shouting. What I love most of all is doing things for the public.”

That came off like pablum, but for a very select group of people it was a little sad. Not long after he resigned the governor’s office in March 2008, Spitzer became a columnist for Slate. He was good at it, but he viewed it, not too secretly, as a penance. With him gone, with Henry Blodget long gone, I’m the only Slate reporter who knows what it’s like to endure a media firestorm, resign from a job, and wait out the wailing mobs.

It’s a useful learning experience, though I’d recommend avoiding it. To recap: In January 2009, after moving from the libertarian Reason to the left-leaning Washington Independent, I was invited to join an extant liberal listserv called JournoList. Founded by Ezra Klein, purportedly off the record, it sprung leaks when its members went particularly rough on people they didn’t like. In March 2010, I was hired by the Washington Post to cover the conservative movement, while on the List I was cracking wise (and occasionally cruelly—I joked about a guy’s heart attack?) about some of the people on that beat.

In June 2010, two outlets published a collection of my choicest insults. I offered to resign on a Thursday; the resignation was accepted 12 hours later, after more emails were released. That was around four times as fast as Eliot Spitzer’s scandal-to-resignation timeline, and 24 times faster than Anthony Weiner’s. Like Spitzer, and unlike Weiner, I never denied the charges. But of course I didn’t. This was 2010—who’d buy “I got hacked” as a cover story?

There’s no real transitive property of scandals—sex isn’t emails (or even TwitPics), Governor Elected by the Great People of This State is a loftier job than reporter–blogger. There is a recognizable pattern in how the media ingests and digests these stories. If it’s about a personal failing, and not some graft or waste of public funds, the scandal becomes a morality play. Who feels good at the end of a morality play? A bad actor who’s been caught is a villain, but the moment he loses, he’s a tragic villain.

This is the curse of the “narrative.” Joan Didion, a reliable enemy of “the narrative,” has identified how its makers “overlook the observable in the interests of obtaining a dramatic story line.” Hubris is dramatic, and so is pathos, so if a scandal brings you down you know what your next role’s got to be.

That’s if you want to stay in the industry. A good number of the last decade’s scandalized politicians moved on completely. Former Indiana Rep. Mark Souder and New York Rep. Eric Massa resigned, did a little media clean-up (“I’m sick of politicians who drag their spouses up in front of the cameras,” said Souder), then quit public life. Former New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey became a divinity student and prison counselor, avoiding politics, though he did re-engage with media in a documentary with the editorialized title of Fall to Grace.

But Sanford, Weiner, and Spitzer wanted back into politics. I wanted back into reporting. Once you quit, you realize that they beat you, and … well, wasn’t that supposed to be the worst thing that could ever happen? You used to have a secret, now you don’t. You’ve got to endure something painful, but is it a walk through a punishing desert or a meditation in a high-end red-rocks sauna? You get to choose.

Back in 2010, I tried to be contrite, apologizing to the people I’d insulted then figuring out whether I could still be trusted as a reporter. It turned out that I could, because no one was really comfortable with the idea of profane emails blacklisting you from politics. I really was sorry, and the people I talked to were either sorry or confused that there was a scandal at all. Once they’d beaten me, critics revealed that they didn’t know what else to do. I puzzled at “confirmed” lists of JournoList members (some of them were never members) and realized that opinion on the scandal had pretty much settled. You either had proof for all time of how the media worked, or you didn’t care.

Sanford, Weiner, and Spitzer must have realized something similar. When I covered Sanford this year, he said (more than once) that he didn’t really appreciate grip-and-grabs with voters until he’d been disgraced. Now he saw it as a “blessing”—people knew his darkest secret, and they wanted photos with him anyway! Weiner’s reflections to a New York Times profile writer suggested that he only faltered because, darn it, he cared too much. “I was in a world and a profession that had me wanting people’s approval,” he said. “By definition, when you are a politician, you want people to like you, you want people to respond to what you’re doing, you want to learn what they want to hear so you can say it to them.”

Sanford, Weiner, and Spitzer believe in their new personas. Their new, post-scandal, open-collar and confession personas are much stronger than the pol-with-a-secret images that were ripped away. The haters, having won, stopped caring about them; the only people they heard from were fans. Paradoxically, trading their old and complicated narratives for “comeback kid” narratives really does make them stronger than the average candidate. If they had shame, you’d never have heard their names in the first place.