A FIT, FUN, UNEMPLOYED GUY…. Usually, politicians’ career-crushing controversies take a while, and linger for weeks, if not months. Yesterday, the life-cycle of Christopher Lee’s scandal didn’t quite last four hours.
Rep. Chris Lee of New York abruptly resigned Wednesday evening, hours after a gossip Web site reported that the married Republican had allegedly sent flirtatious e-mail messages and a shirtless photo of himself to a woman he met online.
Lee experienced his fall from grace in a single afternoon, undone at the speed of the digital age. At lunchtime Wednesday, he was an obscure but promising second-term congressman. Then, at 2:33 p.m., the Web site Gawker posted an alleged e-mail exchange between a man who used Lee’s name – but identified himself as a divorced lobbyist – and an unidentified woman. Gawker reported that the two had met through the personals section of Craigslist.
After that, the familiar cycles of a Washington sex scandal were compressed into a blur of tweets and news alerts. There was confusion, a hint of denial, then a pledge from Lee to “work it out” with his wife.
By 6 p.m., a clerk was announcing Lee’s resignation in the House chamber.
Lee, a two-term lawmaker from Buffalo, was considered a rising star in Republican politics, and was recently given a coveted spot on the House Ways and Means Committee. One topless photo later, all of this is gone.
The developments were more than a little surprising, not only because of Lee’s spectacularly dumb actions, but also because he resigned so quickly — Republicans, especially those caught up in sex scandals, generally don’t step down.
Indeed, if we’re measuring controversies on the Scandal Richter Scale, Lee’s story doesn’t seem nearly as serious as some of his Republican colleagues. Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) got caught with prostitutes, refused to resign, sought re-election, and won. Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) carried on a lengthy extra-marital relationship with one of his aides, who happened to be married to another one of his aides. Ensign’s parents tried to pay off the mistress’ family, and the senator arranged lobbying work for his mistress’ husband. He refused to resign, and he’s running for another term, too. Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) got caught seeking sex in an airport bathroom, and even he didn’t resign.
Lee’s story is certainly sleazy, but based solely on what we know so far, it pales in comparison to some of these other Republicans’ scandals.
So, why’d he resign while the others didn’t? It’s speculative, of course, but it’s possible there was far more dirt, and Lee quit to avoid further humiliation. Maybe Republican leaders who tolerated the previous controversies didn’t want any distractions, so they demanded Lee’s resignation.
Or maybe it’s just the simple fact that we live in an era when images have more of an impact than than anything else. Vitter, Ensign, and the like were at the center of ugly controversies, but there’s no single photograph to be aired over and over again, the way there is with Lee’s topless photo of himself.
Visuals, in other words, resonate.
As for the month-old 112th Congress, David Dayen had this eye-opening observation: “Number of House resignations this year: 2. Number of pieces of legislation signed into law: 0.”