By now, America has rejected Anthony Weiner with as much passion and unanimity as it rejected New Coke and the final episode of Seinfeld. After giving him a second chance, our forgiveness resulted in even more predatory sexual behaviors, exposing our children to blurred photos of his nether regions on television, and more genitalia puns in one week than in the average four years of high school. Suddenly, everyone agrees it’s time for “Carlos Danger” to simply go away. And, if recent New York polls are any indication, America might just get its wish.
But Carlos is an easy call. What about other politicians? When should scandals end political careers, even when they’re really, really sorry?
Recent examples abound.
Obviously, there’s Democrat Eliot Spitzer who resigned from his position as governor of New York in 2008 because of a prostitution scandal, but is currently running for comptroller.
Then, there’s the Democratic San Diego Mayor Bob Filner, whom seven women have publicly accused of unwanted sexual advances like groping. On Friday, he told his constituents “the behavior I have engaged in over many years is wrong … the intimidating conduct I engaged in at times is inexcusable.” Yet, instead of resigning, he’s entering two weeks of “intensive therapy.”
Republicans have their own share of drama. It’s easy to forget, amongst all the Carlos Danger conversation, the bizarre case of Mark Sanford. In 2010, the South Carolina governor disappeared for six days, while aides explained he was “hiking the Appalachian Trail.” Then, Sanford suddenly reappeared and told the world he’d actually been with his Argentine soul mate – not his wife.
Instead of shrinking permanently from the public eye, he waited for a couple years then ran for Congress against several fiscally conservative, pro-family, pro-life candidates. His quest got the endorsement of such diverse figures as prominent pro-life Republican Erick Erickson and reprehensible Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt who said, “Mark Sanford has demonstrated by his words and deeds that traditional values are shameful and that he will not live by such rules. His open embrace of his mistress in the name of love, breaking his sacred marriage vows, was an act of bravery that has drawn my support.”
One of the most unnerving cases is Republican congressman and physician Scott DeJarlais from Tennessee. During his 2010 campaign, divorce papers showed he had engaged in “violent and threatening behavior,” which included “dry firing a gun outside” his ex-wife’s bedroom door, threatening suicide, and holding a gun in his mouth for three hours. We later learned he’s also had at least four affairs — one with a female patient who became pregnant. In conversations DesJarlais inexplicably recorded, he pressured her to have an abortion. (He also supported his ex-wife’s decision to get two abortions before they walked down the aisle.) Another female patient came forward and revealed she dated DesJarlais while he was her doctor, that they smoked marijuana together and that he unlawfully prescribed her pain medications. Yet, he is still Tennessee’s pro-life, pro-family congressman from the 4th congressional district.
Americans should learn a valuable lesson from Weiner and the rest of this political-rogue’s gallery: public indiscretions should end political careers. True repentance carries with it certain responsibilities–among them, the responsibility to perhaps rethink one’s petty political ambitions. While grotesque moral lapses shouldn’t preclude one from making a living — even a good living — serving in political office is very different from a job that simply pays the bills. Political leadership carries with it a higher need for integrity. This is also true about pastors at churches and Army officers, for example. (The Army still criminalizes adultery.)
Since none of us are perfect, when should these politicians just simply pack up their briefcase and go away? Doesn’t America believe in second chances? Doesn’t Christianity offer forgiveness of sins, as Sanford continually mentioned on the campaign trail?
Thankfully, God forgives, which is good news for all of us. But not everyone is qualified to be running for public office.
Perhaps the default rule should be this: No politician is so amazingly gifted that we need them in public service despite their failings.
That means America doesn’t need men like Sanford, Weiner, Spitzer, or DesJarlais. It doesn’t need former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the thrice-married, serial-admitted adulterer who managed to carry the evangelical vote in South Carolina during the 2012 election cycle.
But we could use a few examples of humility, repentance and self-sacrifice.
Recently, a reporter asked Spitzer if Weiner should resign from the race. Spitzer, embattled with his own scandals, refused to do so. He simply responded, “Look, I think it’s going to be for voters to decide. And obviously, I’m in a unique position on this … but I think the voters, at the end of the day will make that decision.”
Which gets to the heart of the matter. Writing in National Review, David French (my husband) wrote, “We’re all susceptible to cheap grace. Perhaps that’s why we’re so eager to bestow it on others. Failure is embarrassing. Shame is unbearable. We want to close the worst chapters of our lives as quickly as possible and just get on with living on the same trajectory as before, minus the embarrassment. Such an outlook, however, neglects true repentance — invariably to our detriment.”
In fact, disgraced politicians could have a real role in our very broken culture by showing what it looks like to re-establish honor. America will always be a nation of second chances. However, instead of taking their “second chance” to indulge their political ambitions, perhaps disgraced politicians could take the second chance to live honorably. Spitzer could take the forgiveness that this country has given him and retire from public office to work ethically in the private sector. Gingrich could enjoy his newfound popularity by writing more books and determining to never ever run for public office again. Pro-life Congressman DesJarlais, who we now know is responsible for at least three abortions, should take his “second chance” and resign from office immediately.
They should go back home, mend their broken marriages, tend to their families and work on the issues that brought them into such disgrace in the first place.
Driven by honor, not by shame.
Nancy A. French is a New York Times best-selling author who lives in Tennessee. Follow her on Twitter @NancyAFrench