Column: Rebounds typically follow sex scandals

Monday - 5/6/2013, 8:12pm EDT

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The philandering Mark Sanford and the sexting Anthony Weiner are running on redemption.

Based on the comebacks attempted by plenty of other politicians, athletes and celebrities felled by scandal, the strategy just may work.

To a certain degree, it already has: Both men are back in the national political spotlight just a few short years after their dalliances led many observers to declare their careers over. Chalk up their rebounds thus far to a conflicted public that initially revels in the sagas, then segues to outrage before ultimately forgiving personal indiscretions and allowing people to reinvent themselves.

Even so, fully winning back the public's trust after lying often proves more difficult. Particularly now, when people generally report having little faith in their elected leaders and not much confidence in the institutions where they serve.

Not that the scandal-scarred don't try to get over that hurdle. They attempt as much by acknowledging -- and apologizing for -- their faults.

"None of us goes through life without mistakes. But in their wake, we can learn a lot about grace, a God of second chances and be the better for it," Sanford says in a campaign TV ad in his race to return to Congress.

The former South Carolina governor, who won the Republican nomination for his old seat in Congress, wants people to have faith in him after he had an extramarital affair while in office in 2009 with an Argentine woman and falsely told people he was hiking on the Appalachian Trail when he disappeared for days, it turned out, to visit his mistress in South America.

In New York, the coincidentally named Weiner is flirting with a mayoral candidacy two years after he tweeted a picture of his underwear-clad crotch and then claimed his Twitter account had been hacked. When more pictures surfaced, the married Weiner acknowledged exchanging inappropriate messages with several women, and resigned from Congress.

Recently, he's re-emerged, with a new account on the very technology that ensnared him in scandal.

"To some degree, it's now or maybe never for me, in terms of running for something," Weiner said in a long and candid interview in The New York Times Magazine. "Also, I want to ask people to give me a second chance."

And why wouldn't they?

This country has proven willing to do just that for others whose indiscretions were arguably more severe.

America has a forgive-and-mostly-forget mentality when it comes to sex scandals. That partly can be explained by the inherent tension in this country over matters that once were typically personal but now often become public. In the Internet age, the inundated public barely even blinks at intimate details of life. And the media is prone to temporary feeding frenzies over whatever's trending online.

Here's the conflict:

--People tell pollsters they want politicians, celebrities and athletes to be authentic. Digital technology like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube makes it easier for those in the limelight to appear more real than ever by closing the distance between themselves and the public. Yet, their fans also lambaste them -- often mercilessly -- when they mess up.

--People also tend to hold politicians and others to a higher moral standard. Yet, no matter the title or the position or the career, everyone is fallible.

--People tend to chastise the media for digging into the private lives of public figures. Yet, they also can't seem to get enough of live-action reality TV chronicling the downfall of someone on top.

--People -- and the media -- usually are quick to call a career doomed when someone in the spotlight is tainted by a sex scandal. Yet, they often can't get enough of the spectacle of the disgraced attempting a comeback.

Perhaps the biggest turnarounds came from Bill Clinton and his one-time nemesis Newt Gingrich.

The Democratic president was impeached by the House in 1998 -- but acquitted by the Senate -- after a sexual relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Fifteen years later, he's not just enormously popular, but he's also seen as a world leader on global issues. At the same time, former House Speaker Gingrich -- who engaged in an extramarital affair with a congressional employee while pushing the GOP-controlled House to impeach Clinton -- went on to build a lucrative consulting business and make a serious run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012.

Others found their careers sidetracked but not derailed entirely.

Republican David Vitter was identified as a prostitution ring client but went on to win a second term as a senator from Louisiana in 2010 and remains in office today. Democrat Barney Frank, the openly gay former congressman from Massachusetts, served for two more decades after he admitted to a relationship with a male prostitute in 1989.