Alabama Governor Paul Bentley just resigned in a plea deal to avoid prison. We wrote about Bentley and his travails a while back — and thought this might be a good time to dust off that article.
What sets him apart might not be the scope of his misdeeds and hypocrisy but rather that he is one of the few elected officials who is now asked to face the consequences.
Political sex scandals explode with numbing regularity. Sometimes, it’s a Democrat, sometimes a Republican. Sometimes it’s a congressman or mayor, sometimes it is a president or presidential contender.
Well, here we are again, faced with yet another politician sunk — or at least wounded — by his libido.
This time it is Robert Bentley, the pious Republican Governor of Alabama, who, notwithstanding weak half-denials, is widely believed to have carried on an affair with Rebekah Caldwell Mason, a powerful top aide, while both were married.
The Associated Press obtained recordings made by someone — perhaps within his own home — of the two on the phone.
“When I stand behind you and put my arms around you and I put my hands on your breasts …,” Bentley is heard saying on the tape. “If we’re going to do what we did the other day, we’re going to have to start locking the door.”
The Pious Perp
Let’s be frank, folks. Given Alabama’s history of racial violence, wrapping one’s hands around anything below someone’s neck is one of the more benign activities for that state.
Despite the comparative banality of the transgression, the revelation of gubernatorial shenanigans has caused a sensation. When I last checked in on this fast-evolving saga, Bentley’s fellow Republicans in the state legislature were turning on him. State Rep. Ed Henry, R-Hartselle, announced that he is preparing an impeachment process, because of “incompetence and moral turpitude.”
Yet the Bentley scandal is worth more than a snicker for one reason, and one reason only: He was elected, and popular, primarily because he looked and acted like the quintessential church deacon, which, in fact, he was.
Here’s the irony: if Bentley had not presented himself as sanctimonious and squeaky clean, he probably would never have become governor in the first place. Why? Because voters tend to vote for people based on notions like “Would I like to have them babysit my kid?” or “Would I like to have a beer with the guy?”
Anything beyond that is apparently asking too much. All too many voters cannot be bothered with paying attention, between football games and barbecues, to what the people they elect actually do — all that boring stuff like drafting and passing laws.
Which raises the question: What does it say about American democracy that so many people seem interested in politicians only when they do something sexually scandalous?
Ultimately, this is less about the defects of politicians than about what we see when we look in the mirror. Are we simply too lazy to pay attention to anything more complex in our civic life than a cheap morality tale?
Worse, we fall into a trap. Too often, political sex scandals are the engineered creation of those with House of Cards-like ulterior motives, because, well, sex captures clicks and eyeballs, and they’re the surest way to get rid of someone who is making trouble.(For a review of some populists who angered the wealthy and powerful and ended up ousted over their private behavior, see this and this — and this.)
Politicians understand this, which is why most live in fear of being caught doing anything that even hints of salaciousness, much less getting caught in the act. It’s a syndrome that fundamentally damages our political system.
I have an idea to fix the problem:
Why don’t we all grow up?
First, let’s admit that not everyone is in a model marriage and inclined to remain faithful to one person, “for better or worse,” throughout their life. Consider the statistics: nearly 40% of American men and nearly 25% of women admit to pollsters that they have had affairs — totals that many believe to be lowballed by those not inclined to level with strangers.
We could also acknowledge that if committing adultery (even with all of the obvious repercussions and harm to family) was absolutely our politicians’ greatest failing, we would be living in a much better country. For whatever reason, we seem the last people in the Western world to come to this realization.
And, instead of wringing our hands and knocking down politicians over their private behavior, why not seek to impeach politicians who do monstrous things to the entire society — like making it possible for their corporate campaign donors to poison our children, or sending America’s young to their deaths in avoidable wars, or doing nothing about planetary survival issues such as global warming? Why does this kind of thing rouse less widespread indignation? Is wrapping oneself in a Victorian cloak enough to ward off all substantive criticism?
At the same time, we could show the media that we’re really not all that desperate for such pathetic entertainment, and that we wouldn’t mind if they did real reporting on the big issues instead.
Finally, should Governor Bentley be forced out over this matter, it would be fitting — and perhaps even make a difference — if he were to choose to lead a movement to focus on what really matters.
If you liked that doozy, here’s another ClassicWho for your reading pleasure, featuring a lineup of politicians caught with their hand in the cookie jar.
Newt Gingrich suggested the other day that U.S. Representative Trey Radel, the congressman from Fort Myers, Florida, had not necessarily blown his political career up his nose when he tried to buy cocaine from a federal agent in October.
A favorite son of the Tea Party, Radel, 37, whooshed into Washington last fall as a brash GOP hipster—proof that Republicans can use Twitter, too. He went so far as to wear his ball cap backwards.
His signboard “issue” was drug testing for food stamp recipients, which resonated with his base of grumpy retirees back home. But that became an awkward detail in his political portfolio last month, when he was charged with buying an 8-ball of cocaine from undercover agents in Washington—and then inviting them back to his apartment to share the toot.
“I hope, like family, southwest Florida can forgive me for this,” a misty Radel told reporters. “But I do believe in faith, forgiveness and redemption.”
Of course he does.
He pleaded guilty, was sentenced to a year of probation, and disappeared into rehab, following the well-worn path of political abashment. He became the first sitting U.S. congressman to be convicted of a cocaine offense and the first since 1982 to be convicted of any narcotics violation (see the Fred Richmond entry below).
Gingrich, the former House speaker from Georgia, was asked about Radel’s political prospects during a book tour appearance in Florida with his wife, Callista. He said the onus was on Radelto prove that he has “genuinely been rehabilitated.”
“Does he come out of rehab genuinely changed or is it all a gimmick?” Gingrich said. “If it’s a gimmick, he won’t survive.”
Gingrich knows a few things about surviving turpitude. While pressing impeachment of President Bill Clinton over his sexual peccadillos in 1998, Gingrich was in the midst of a six-year extramarital affair with House staffer CallistaBisek, who later became his third wife.
Since leaving the House 15 years ago, Gingrich has morphed into a Republican Big Lebowski; his utterances are assumed to be deep. But will his wisdom abide when it comes to Radel’s future?
It may seem hard to believe that conservative Fort Myers would return him to Washington. But we should not overestimate the American electorate. Stranger things have happened in the long and wonderful history of political duplicity.
Sex, not drugs, is the subject of the typical scandal—although Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s crack use is a reminder that anything is possible. Even President Obama admitted obliquely in his biography that he had been a drugsampler. “I had learned not to care,” he wrote. “I blew a few smoke rings, remembering those years. Pot had helped, and booze; maybe a little blow when you could afford it.”
A Parade of Sorry Sinners
WhoWhatWhy compiled thumbnails of some of the elders of Washington political scandal who, over the past 40 years, have paved the way for modern pols likeRadel. (Yes, it is true that bribery, graft, fraud and other forms of financial corruption offer another deep well of duplicity, but we’ll leave those for another day.)
We begin our list with the standard-setter, the Gentleman from Arkansas, then resort to a chronology.
Rep. Wilbur Mills (D-Arkansas), 1974: At 2 a.m. on Oct. 7, 1974, cops stopped a speeding Lincoln Continental adjacent to the Tidal Basin near the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Three young women and an older man bailed out of the back seat. Fellini could not have scripted a more surreal scene.
The man bellowed, “See here, I’m a congressman and I’ll have you demoted.” It was Wilbur Mills, one of the most powerful politicians in Washington. He was drunk and bleeding from the nose. One of the women from the car threw herself into the Tidal Basin. The officers fished her out, packed everyone back into the Lincoln, and whisked them all away.
The press, aroused by Watergate, caught wind of the incident and broke the longstanding gentlemen’s agreement to ignore Washington’s political bacchanals. The soakingwet woman proved to be Annabel Battistella, a South American stripper who performed as Fanne Foxe, “the Argentine Firecracker.”
Mills, 65, was a married yellow-dog Democrat who had spent 36 years representing Arkansas as a conservative bulwark. He first denied he was party to the Tidal Basin frolic, but he eventually came clean and said he had learned a life lesson: “Don’t go out with foreigners who drink champagne.”
A month later, Mills won reelection with 60 percent of the vote. But he couldn’t stay away from Foxe. Weeks after the election, he did an on-stage cameo during her show at a Boston club. The party was over. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski told Mills, “Mr. Chairman, you’re out of business.” Mills went into rehab a little too late. He lost his Ways and Means Committee chairmanship, retired from Congress in 1976, and became an advocate for Alcoholics Anonymous. A residential detox facility in Searcy, Arkansas, is named in his honor.
Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-New York), 2011: The Narcissus of American politics, Weiner cannot resist texting nude selfies to female strangers.Regarded as a rising-star Democrat, he resigned from Congress in 2011 after a sexting scandal. After therapy, he announced himself rehabilitated and ran for mayor of New York in 2013. The shrink’s work was wasted. Using the alias “Carlos Danger,” Weiner sent fresh explicit images in 2013. He won’t be mayor anytime soon.
Rep. Chris Lee (R-New York), 2011: Selfies also ended the congressional career of Lee, from the Buffalo region, weeks after his second term had begun. He sent a shirtless photo to a woman he solicited on Craigslist. She discovered he was a married congressman and leaked the story. Lee resigned.
Rep. David Wu (D-Oregon), 2011: The 11-term congressman resigned amid allegations of psychiatric problems voiced by his own staff and for making inappropriate sexual suggestions to the 18-year-old daughter of a donor.
Rep. Eric Massa (D-New York), 2010: After a Navy career, Massa was determined to win a congressional seat in upstate New York. He lost twice before prevailing in 2008. Fourteen months after he was sworn in, Massa’s career unraveled when a male staff member accused him of sexual harassment and uninvited groping. Massa claimed he was an avid tickler whose playfulness was misinterpreted, but he resigned his seat in March 2010.
Rep. Mark Souder (R-Indiana), 2010: Souder, who had a long career in Washington as a congressional aide, got his name on the office door when he was elected in 2002. The reason for his mid-term resignation in 2010 was not unusual: the married politician—who espoused Christian values and advocated premarital sexual abstinence—got caught in an affair with a staff member. But at his farewell press conference, he noted that he had not prevailed upon his wife of 30 years to stand at his side. He said, “I’m sick of politicians who drag their spouses up in front of the cameras rather than confronting the problem they caused.”
Gov. Mark Sanford (R-South Carolina), 2009: Reprising the role of “firecracker” Fanne Foxe, another Argentine had marquee billing in the very public dissolution of Sanford’s marriage. Busted for romantic sneak-aways with his Argentine mistress, MaríaBelénChapur, Sanford announced to squirming reporters that he had found his “soul mate.” Sanford served out his second term, got a divorce from the mother of his four sons, stepped away from politics for a few years, and then was elected to the House from the Charleston area last fall. His soul mate stood beside him in victory.
Sen. John Ensign (R-Nevada), 2009: An evangelical Christian and frequent witness-bearer to the sanctity of heterosexual marriage, the married Ensign was caught in an affair with a former staff member whose husband was a friend. Facing an ethics investigation of hush-money payoffs to the cuckolded husband, Ensign resigned in 2011. He said he had decided to “put my family first.”
Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D-New York), 2008: Though his scandal played out in New York, not Washington, Spitzer deserves a position in this pantheon of political self-destruction. As state Attorney General and then Governor, the “Sheriff of Wall Street” seemed destined for a star turn on the national political stage. But in 2008, Spitzer was revealed as “Client 9,” a primo patron of high-priced prostitutes (with some assignations at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington), and his career went up in smoke. He resigned as governor with his wife, Silda, standing awkwardly at his right hand. Spitzer tested the viability of a comeback in 2013, running for New York City comptroller. He lost in the Democratic Party primary.
Rep. Vito Fossella (R-New York), 2008: Fossella, a six-term congressman from the Republican bastion of Staten Island, left his seat after revelations that in addition to his wife and three kids in New York he had a second, shadow family in the Washington suburbs, including his mistress and their child.
Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), 2007: Craig was arrested for the sexual solicitation of an undercover officer in a men’s room at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport. He insisted he was not and had never been gay. He said he was a “wide stance” guy in the bathroom, whose footwork had been misinterpreted at a come-on by a stall neighbor. He pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct, served out his term, thenfounded a K Street lobbying firm.
Sen. David Vitter (R-Louisiana), 2007: Vitter was elected to the Senate in 2004 as a family-values conservative, and he frequently blustered about abstinence-only sex education and opposition to same-sex marriage. When his phone number showed up on the client list of “D.C. Madam” Deborah Jeane Palfrey in 2007, Hustler magazine called Vitter to ask why. With his wife at his side, Vitter held a press conference and admitted “a very serious sin.” His wife added, “I’m proud to be Wendy Vitter.” He was never forced to explain his behavior further, though New Orleans hookers said Vitter was a player there, too. Had he resigned, Louisiana’s Democratic governor likely would have appointed a Democrat. So the GOP held its nose, and Vitter held on to his seat. He was reelected in 2010. (A number of the congressional sex scandals have intertwined histories; see the Bob Livingston entry below.)
Sen. John Edwards (D-North Carolina), 2007: As his wife, Elizabeth, was dying of cancer, Edwards’ presidential candidacy imploded over revelations of his extramarital affair with Rielle Hunter, who had done work for his campaign (and later bore his child). Edwards followed the template for political scandal:shocked denial followed by sheepish acknowledgment. He abandoned his pursuit of the White House, his wife died, and his mistress dumped him. There may be more to this story: See our piece on his downfall, here.
Rep. Mark Foley (R-Florida), 2006: For a decade, this six-term representative from the Palm Beach area was the subject of Capitol Hill whispers about his carnal interests in congressional pages. He was finally busted in 2006 when Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington was given a cache of sexually suggestive instant messages he sent to a 16-year-old male former page. Foley rushed into alcohol rehab. But he became a GOP pariah and resigned rather than stand for an ethics investigation. Newsweek cited Foley as an example of a closeted gay politician who consistently voted against gay rights. (Foley’s seat might have a scandal curse: His successor, Democrat Tim Mahoney, was voted out of office after one term when it was revealed he had paid $121,000 in hush money to a former mistress who had worked on his staff.)
Rep. Gary Condit (D-California), 2001: After the ritual denials, Condit admitted in 2001 to an affair with an intern, Chandra Levy, who had turned up missing that May. Condit was investigated in the case but cleared. Levy’s body was later found in a Washington, D.C., park, and another man was convicted ofher murder. Condit lost his seat in the next election. He moved to Arizona and opened an ice cream store, which soon failed.
Rep. Bob Livingston (R-Louisiana), 1998: During the Clinton impeachment proceedings, Larry Flynt of Hustler Magazine offered cash for tips about the sexual indiscretions of Republican congressmen. Livingston was about to enter the national stage as designated successor to Newt Gingrich as Speaker of the House,but his career fell apart when Flynt revealed that the married congressman had a squeeze on the side. He resigned the seat he had held for 22 years. (Livingston was succeeded by David Vitter, who had sexual issues of his own a few years later, as described above). Livingston founded a K Street lobbying firm, The Livingston Group.
Rep. Dan Burton (R-Indiana), 1998: Burton, who set himself up as an arbiter of morality in Congress, called President Clinton a “scumbug” during his sex scandal. He said no elected official “should be allowed to get away with these alleged sexual improprieties.” That became a difficult position for him in 1998 when he learned that Vanity Fair planned an expose (written by WhoWhatWhy’s Russ Baker) on Burton’s own behavior. Faced with impending publication of that article, Burton held a press conference to admit that he had fathered a child out of wedlock. But he added, “As far as peccadilloes and all that stuff, man, they could go from dawn till dusk digging around trying to find out stuff about that … There’s nothing else to learn.” Yet when Baker’s article finally appeared (in Salon), it revealed a staggering array of improprieties by the representative—ranging from shoving his hand up the dress of a Planned Parenthood lobbyist with whom he disagreed to putting his multiple mistresses (and one of his multiple love children) on his congressional and campaign payrolls. The Christian Coalition champion’s constituency seemed not to care. He held his seat for 30 years, finally retiring in 2013.
Sen. Robert Packwood (R-Oregon), 1995: Ten female lobbyists and former staffers stepped forward in 1992 to accuse Packwood of sexual assault or abuse. He nonetheless won reelection that fall to a fourth term. But after a withering ethics investigation that seemed headed for his expulsion, Packwood resigned in 1995. He pivoted to the fallback political career, founding his own K Street lobbying firm, Sunrise Research Corp.
Rep. Mel Reynolds (D-Illinois), 1995: During his freshman term, the Chicago Democrat was charged with having sex with a 16-year-old campaign volunteer, then coercing her to lie about it.(In another example of sex scandal lineage, Reynolds had ousted Rep. Gus Savage, who was accused of fondling a Peace Corps volunteer during a visit to Africa.) Reynolds was re-elected while the charges were pending but resigned in 1995 after he was convicted and sentenced to a five-year prison term. He was convicted two years later of 15 unrelated counts of bank fraud.
Sen. Charles Robb (D-Virginia), 1991: When Robb, Lyndon Johnson’s son-in-law, learned that NBC was about to reveal his affair with a former Miss Virginia, he held a press conference to admit that he had been alone with the woman in a hotel room but that his marriage vow was intact. The mistress responded that she and Robb had been lovers for eight years. Voters shrugged. Robb, a former Virginia governor, went on to serve two full terms in the Senate.
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Massachusetts), 1989: Frank, an openly gay congressman, was reprimanded by his House colleagues when a conservative newspaper revealed that a male prostitute housemate had run a sex service out of Frank’s Washington apartment. Frank’s constituents yawned. He served 34 years in Congress, retiring in January 2013.
Donald “Buz” Lukens (R-Ohio), 1989: Four weeks into his second term, Lukens was accused of having coerced a teenage girl into a long sexual relationship that had begun when she was just 13. A grand jury declined serious felony charges in favor of a single misdemeanor, contributing to the delinquency of a minor—for paying the girl $40 to have sex with him. Lukens stubbornly refused to resign but lost the 1990 Republican primary to John Boehner. As he was serving out his term, Lukens was charged with fondling a U.S. Capitol elevator operator. He was convicted and served nine days in jail. He finally resigned.
Sen. Brock Adams (D-Washington), 1988: Adams, a six-term congressman and secretary of transportation under Jimmy Carter, was accused of sexual assault by the 24-year-old daughter of longtime friends. No criminal charges were brought, and Adams appeared to be headed toward election to a second Senate term in 1992. But the Seattle Times revealed that eight more women had come forward to accuse Adams of serial molestation, drugging and rape that dated back 20 years. While still proclaiming his innocence, Adams ended his campaign and retired from politics.
Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colorado), 1987: Hart likely will be the last politician suspected of philandering to tell the press, “Follow me around. I don’t care.” After serving two terms in the Senate, the married politician was the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1987. As he had suggested, the pressfollowed him around—and caught him fooling around with a model named Donna Rice on a boat called Monkey Business. He dropped out of politics.
Rep. Gerry Studds (D-Massachusetts), 1983: Studds, regarded as the first openly gay member of Congress, was censured by the House in the 1983 Congressional page sex scandal for an inappropriate relationship with a 17-year-old male page. He acknowledged the impropriety but also described it as a “consensual relationship with a young adult.” Studds paid no political cost beyond the loss of a committee chairmanship; he was re-elected six times after the scandal.
Rep. Daniel Crane (R-Illinois), 1983: Crane, caught up in the same page sex scandal as Studds, was not so lucky. The three-term congressman, who admitted a sexual relationship with a teenage female page, was voted out.
Rep. Fred Richmond (D-New York), 1982: Richmond, a wealthy import-export entrepreneur from New York City, had already weathered an allegation of soliciting sex from a 16-year-old boy in Washington in 1978. In 1982, he was charged with marijuana possession and bribery as part of a federal corruption investigation. He resigned from Congress in a plea deal.
Rep. Jon Hinson (R-Mississippi), 1981: In the middle of his first re-election campaign in 1980, Hinson, a conservative young Mississippi Republican, held an awkward press conference. “I am not, never have been, and never will be a homosexual,” said Hinson, his wife standing sentry beside him. He had learned his political opponents were about to reveal that Hinson had been arrested for committing an obscene act at a Washington gay cruise spot in 1976 and that he had survived a fatal fire at a gay porn theater there the next year. Hinson declined to resign and was re-elected. Three months later, he was interrupted by police while having sex with another man in a Longworth Building bathroom on Capitol Hill. He hurried into in-patient therapy but soon resigned. Hinson, who became a gay rights advocate, died of complications from AIDS in 1995.
Rep. Robert Bauman (R-Maryland), 1980: Bauman, a four-term congressman, set a high standard for duplicity. A married father of four, he thumped podiums over American immorality and was a leading figure in two foundational conservative groups, Young Americans for Freedom and the American Conservative Union. In October 1980, in the midst of a re-election campaign, Bauman was charged with soliciting sex from a teenage male prostitute at a gay bar in Washington. Bauman declared himself a drunk and went into rehab, but he was voted out of office.
Rep. Wayne Hays (D-Ohio), 1976: Hays lost his congressional seat after exhibiting a philanderer’s tin ear: He scorned his mistress and, worse, failed to invite her to his wedding. Elizabeth Ray, his paramour/ secretary, went to the press after Hays married another woman. She said, “I was good enough to be his mistress for two years but not good enough to be invited to his wedding.” She also revealed that her federal salary of $14,000 was pure sexual graft. She said, “I can’t type, I can’t file, I can’t even answer the phone.” Hays dropped a re-election bid and resigned from Congress after 27 years.
Rep. John Young (D-Texas), 1976: Young’s political denouement was a sobering reminder of the toll that Washington sex scandals take on spouses. Inspired by Elizabeth Ray, Young’s former secretary, Colleen Gardner, told the press that she had been paid $20,000 a year to have sex with Young, who was married with five children. He was nonetheless reelected to sixth term. But his wife committed suicide in July 1977, and Young was voted out the next year.
IMAGE: Pilloried,IMAGE: Trey Radel,IMAGE: Newt Gingrich,IMAGE: Bill Clinton,IMAGE: Wilbur Mills,IMAGE: Anthony Weiner,IMAGE: Eliot Spitzer,IMAGE: Larry Craig,IMAGE: David Vitter,IMAGE: Mark Foley,IMAGE: Christian Coalition,IMAGE: Old Drawing,IMAGE: YAF,IMAGE: Pulp Cover