Much has been written about adulterous politicians and the public's apparent willingness to look past their infidelity. This lumps very different kinds of cheating into one neat sin, equally applicable to all sneaks. But just as "theft" covers everything from armed bank robbery to lifting a bag of chips, cheating on one's spouse may entail a wide range of misdeeds and gray areas.
Following are five shades of gray, a kind of scoring system for judging the political import of a politician's extramarital affairs:
1. How they affect job performance. Former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer and Louisiana Sen. David Vitter were both caught visiting prostitutes. These transactions were fast and out of the office. They had minimal effect on the men's ability to do their work. That was not the case with former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, who despite being his state's chief executive, disappeared for days to conduct a tryst in Argentina.
For the record, Democrat Spitzer is polling well in his quest to become New York City's comptroller, and Republican Vitter won another term. Sanford, meanwhile, was recently elected to Congress.
2. The cruelty factor. When straying husbands and wives are found out, they can often patch things up. But when "love" enters the affair, things get more painful for the spouse left out. This is no longer a case of a partner needing to meet an animal physical need. Something deeper is going on in the extramarital relationship and less so in the marriage. In terms of humiliation for a wife, Sanford's press conference declaring love for his mistress beats the band.
3. How weird the behavior is. New York Democrat Anthony Weiner had to leave Congress after he was found to have tweeted photos of his crotch to various and assorted women he didn't know. He didn't really commit adultery in the common carnal sense of the word. For strange, exhibitionist, narcissistic, easy-to-get-caught antics, however, Weiner set a high bar. He's also doing well in his race for New York City mayor. President Bill Clinton's oral sex in the Oval Office was another example of nutty risk-taking. He's now as popular as ever.
4. Hypocrisy. He who talks a socially conservative talk should walk a morally conservative walk. Should we finally give up on this, sinning Bible Belt politicians being so legion?
While campaigning, Sanford invoked "the God of second chances" and told family-values voters of plans to tie the knot with his Argentine lady. As of this writing, he remains a single man.
The hypocrisy is not limited to the politicians but includes electorates that say these things are very important to them. For many of Sanford's voters, a Republican affiliation may have trumped their strong belief in the sanctity of marriage. That's fine. Let's just say so.
5. The wife's response. Jenny Sanford divorced the guy. Wendy Vitter stood in silent agony during her husband's confessional press conference. Silda Spitzer is neither divorcing Eliot nor willing to campaign for him. All conventional reactions.
Things get more complicated for political wives who don't care what the old man is doing. For appearances, they should pretend they do. After Colorado Sen. Gary Hart, a Democratic candidate for president in 1987, was photographed frolicking with another woman, his wife compounded the mess by saying she didn't care. The Harts might have done better had they shown discomfort and vowed to work on the marriage.
Clearly, sexual hanky-panky, whatever shade of gray, no longer automatically kills a politician's chances. And while the nature of the betrayal does say things about the person's judgment and character, in the end, the voters are hiring the man, not marrying him.
(A member of the Providence Journal editorial board, Froma Harrop writes a nationally syndicated column from that city. She has written for such diverse publications as The New York Times, Harper's Bazaar and Institutional Investor.)