The Impact of Extramarital Affairs on Political Careers
In August 2008, John Edwards admitted to having an extramarital affair with a campaign staff member. Today, more than a year later, the implications of the affair and its effect on Edward’s marriage are still front page news. Granted, this story of adultery is especially juicy because it involves a two-time presidential candidate, and may have resulted in a love child – but are these stories of politicians being unfaithful ever not juicy? When a politician cheats, the affair comes to define his entire political career, no matter how great his achievements. But here is the question: should it?
A disturbing trend
Since 2007, there seems to have been never-ending procession of cheaters exposed in Washington:
■March 10, 2008: Eliot Spitzer admits to having repeatedly paid for sex with prostitute Ashley Dupre.
■August 9, 2008: Democrat John Edwards admits that he repeatedly lied about having an affair while campaigning for president.
■September 4, 2008: Democratic Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick resigns from his position after he lied under oath about his affair with his chief of staff, Christine Beatty.
■June 16, 2009: Republican Sen. John Ensign of Nevada admits during a news conference that he had an affair with a campaign staff member.
■June 24, 2009: At a press conference, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford admits to having an affair with a woman in Argentina
What are they thinking?
There is one common characteristic that all of the aforementioned men share – an affair effectively ended their tenure in politics. Most attempted to save face by shamelessly forcing their dejected wives to stand next to them while they described every painful detail of their “mistake” to the media. Some tried to excuse their actions while others accepted responsibility for them. No matter the strategy, their careers were as good as dead. That is because there is no recovering from an affair. Let’s examine this from a public relations perspective.
Why do politicians get only one strike before they’re called out?
“When Clinton lied, nobody died…” That slogan has become popular in recent years. It touches on a legitimate point, but fails to give sufficient credit to Clinton’s mistakes. (I will preface this point by acknowledging that Clinton is among my all-time favorite presidents). Conservatives and liberals who were outraged by Clinton’s actions had every right to be. That goes for everyone who disapproved of Mark Sanford’s, John Ensign’s, Elliot Spitzer’s and John Edwards’ trysts as well.
Our public officials are elected with the presumption that they will act ethically and morally while in office. This is a principle that cannot be adulterated (no pun intended) if our politicians hope to retain America’s faith in government. I consider infidelity to be one of the most immoral acts a person can commit. Although I realize it is a transitive argument, I believe that the ability to commit one particularly immoral act indicates you are capable of committing others.
If a politician is being disloyal to his wife and family, how can we presume he will be loyal to us when he is legislating on our behalf? Isn’t it reasonable for us to believe him capable of other immoral acts like money laundering, unfair lobbyist treatment and general corruption? After all, the victimized constituents aren’t going to be sitting across from him at the dinner table when that scandal is uncovered. If a politician is narcissistic enough to believe he can get away with an affair, why would he not exhibit the same confidence when committing other heinous acts?
The best way to handle this crisis – don’t cheat
I mentioned in last week’s blog that credibility is everything in public relations. In politics, it’s even more important. As President Grover Cleveland once said, “A public office is a public trust.” Deception and lies destroy credibility. No matter what PR strategies a disgraced politician uses to try to salvage his career, there is no denying the fact that he has forsaken the public’s confidence, and can no longer hope to have the people’s faith.