In our hyper-partisan world, each time a sex scandal occurs, the other side howls about hypocrisy. How can you excuse Clinton and accuse Sanford? How can you attack Spitzer and defend Vitter? The fact is, this is one area where you can honestly say: both sides do it. Before I go further, I want to also say that this is an area not unique to politics. In my 36 years as a professional educator, I have seen principals, superintendents, professors, and higher education administrators all fall prey to the ways of the flesh. We see it in churches, sports, the world of business.
The question is: why do we forgive some and condemn others? Why do we throw some out on their ears, never to be seen again; while others are just required to spend some time in the wilderness?
I have some thoughts on this in general, but I am going to make it personal. Here are the reasons for my acceptance or rejections of the naughty ones:
1. Competence/deviance hypothesis. Marc Gold, a researcher and practitioner in the field of special education suggested that "the more competent an individual is, the more deviance will be tolerated in him or her by others". Gold was using this premise as a rationale for better training of individuals with significant cognitive disabilities. But it applies to public service. Bill Clinton was forgiven to a great extent because his skills and talents were so extraordinary that as repulsed as many were, we could not see losing his gifts to the nation. This is also why Spitzer, although he did not get a pass, has a pathway back. I think this argument is more acceptable to liberals and Democrats who want government to work, and don't want to abandon those with some of the best ideas.
2. Is there repentance? Among the religious right, this usually means a public confession, preferably with tears and copious mentions of God. But the deeper meaning of repentance (and I learned this in the Christian charismatic movement), is a turning away, a new way of behaving. This is why many Christians continue to rail against Clinton- they cite all the accusations against him over the years. For me, this is the biggest argument for him. After all those years of scandal resulting in the big reveal, it appears he finally got it. I would think if there was the least bit of post Lewinsky dalliance, the right would have found it. This is a big argument against Weiner. He has given no indication that he has changed in any way.
3. The damage done. Who was hurt? And where are they now? Bill hurt Hillary, Chelsea and Monica Lewinsky. Hillary and Chelsea did not give him cheap grace. He had to work hard on healing that family and he did it. Monica was exploited by the right, but had the dignity to withdraw and try to reclaim her life. It was as good an outcome as could be expected. Compare this to John Edwards, who destroyed his marriage, created a new doomed family, ran for office with a barrel of lies. He never seemed to understand the extent of the chaos and pain he inflicted.
4. God-I-hate-a-hypocrite or Schadenfeude. When so called family values folks fall, it is like watching someone slip on a banana peel. It isn't nice to enjoy it, but we do.
5. Home team advantage. Do we forgive Spitzer and condemn Vitter because of competence/deviance, God-I-hate-a-hypocrite, or because he isn't on our team? This is the best test, because the sin was the same- hiring a prostitute. I have to confess to a tendency to forgive Democrats easier than GOP. But I still can't defend Weiner or Edwards.
6. What about love? Many who decried Clinton, defended Sanford, because it was true love: they were soul mates. This included many liberals. i have trouble with this. As a significant other would I be hurt more if he dallied with Monica Lewinsky- recreational sex, or left me for his soul mate (Sanford)? This is my problem with Sanford, Gingrich and McCain- destroying families because they changed their mind (call it heart, if you want- but commitments were broken).
7. Was this a mistake, even a terrible one, or a sign of instability? For me, in one column: Clinton, Spitzer; in the other, Edwards and Weiner. A third column is for those I just find slimy- Sanford, Vitter and Gingrich.