That Which Does Not Kill Them Makes Them Stronger

Since we are awash in politicians–Mark Sanford, Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer, to name the most prominent–who have made or are making unlikely comebacks from devastating sex scandals, it’s worth wondering if this represents a common phenomenon or just a coincidence. Slate‘s Dave Weigel thinks there is something about surviving a scandal that actually makes the survivor subjectively stronger and objectively less destructable–sort of a political virtue of Nietzsche’s famous maxim: “What does not kill me makes me stronger.”

Weigel writes, interestingly enough, from his own experience of losing a job (not just any job, but a WaPo job!) over incautious off-the-record remarks he made that were revealed to the world in the famous if vastly overblown JournoList “scandal.”

In January 2009, after moving from the libertarian Reason to the left-leaning Washington Independent, I was invited to join an extant liberal listserv called JournoList. Founded by Ezra Klein, purportedly off the record, it sprung leaks when its members went particularly rough on people they didn’t like. In March 2010, I was hired by the Washington Post to cover the conservative movement, while on the List I was cracking wise (and occasionally cruelly—I joked about a guy’s heart attack?) about some of the people on that beat.

In June 2010, two outlets published a collection of my choicest insults. I offered to resign on a Thursday; the resignation was accepted 12 hours later, after more emails were released. That was around four times as fast as Eliot Spitzer’s scandal-to-resignation timeline, and 24 times faster than Anthony Weiner’s. Like Spitzer, and unlike Weiner, I never denied the charges. But of course I didn’t. This was 2010—who’d buy “I got hacked” as a cover story?….

I tried to be contrite, apologizing to the people I’d insulted then figuring out whether I could still be trusted as a reporter. It turned out that I could, because no one was really comfortable with the idea of profane emails blacklisting you from politics. I really was sorry, and the people I talked to were either sorry or confused that there was a scandal at all. Once they’d beaten me, critics revealed that they didn’t know what else to do.

Weigel figures the tainted pols have had similar experiences, only intensified by the politician’s ego:

Sanford, Weiner, and Spitzer believe in their new personas. Their new, post-scandal, open-collar and confession personas are much stronger than the pol-with-a-secret images that were ripped away. The haters, having won, stopped caring about them; the only people they heard from were fans. Paradoxically, trading their old and complicated narratives for “comeback kid” narratives really does make them stronger than the average candidate. If they had shame, you’d never have heard their names in the first place.

It’s a pretty compelling argument. But the more interesting politicians are those with a scandal who never suffered any real repercussions for their misdeeds–true Teflon sinners. David Vitter had some uncomfortable days and undoubtedly some private agonies. But he’s politically strong without going through the crucible of defeat. Go figure.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.