News & Politics

Rating the Greatest GOP Sex Scandals of the Past 20 Years

From Clarence Thomas to Mark Sanford, the definitive guide to randy Republicans

Give this to Republicans: They know how to conduct sex scandals in style.

Oh sure, Democrats have their sex scandals, but they're not nearly as interesting. For one thing, most Democrats busted in sex scandals aren't the same type of overbearing moral scolds as your average GOP politician. (The one recent exception was former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, whose work shutting down prostitution rings left him open to charges of bald hypocrisy when he was caught rendezvousing with a prostitute himself.)

Additionally, Democratic sex scandals tend to be of the more vanilla nature: affairs with campaign workers and interns are pretty standard fare as far as modern political culture goes, as are visits to high-priced call girls.

The GOP's deviants, on the other hand, have brought a wealth of oddball debaucheries to the table, from failed bathroom-stall hookups to slimy messages sent to underage congressional pages to rumored S&M diaper fantasies. So let's review the past 20 years of Republican sex scandals and rate each one on a scale of 1 to 10 based on factors such as hypocrisy, legal liability, the damage inflicted upon the perpetrators' careers and overall comedy.

1991: Clarence Thomas

To be fair, none of the allegations against Thomas could ever be proved, and most of the congressional hearings on the matter amounted to he-said-she-saidtestimony. Even so, Anita Hill's cringe-inducing charges that Thomas allegedly talked openly about pornographic films and pubic hair in the workplace captivated the nation. The hearings also marked the first -- and hopefully the last -- time that Orrin Hatch mentioned"Long Dong Silver" on the floor of the Senate.

Rating: 6. Thomas was confirmed as a Supreme Court justice despite the controversy, so it's not like the scandal had any lasting damage on his career. Also, there's nothing particularly funny about sexual harassment in the workplace, so this rating is only as high as it is due to Hatch's appreciation for Long Dong Silver.

1993: Sen. Bob Packwood

Interestingly, Packwood was a rare Republican who was supportive of abortion rights and was described by Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman as a "friend of feminism." That view changed for the worse, however, when 10 women accused him of sexual harassment or misconduct in the pages of the Washington Post. Packwood's friends tried to come to his defense, but for the most part, they ended up doing more harm than good. Ed Westerdahl, a member of the steering committee for Packwood's first Senate race in 1968, told the New York Times that we should be more forgiving of his old boss' behavior because "20 years ago, at parties, I'd see people doing much more than he's being accused of, and nobody gave it a second thought," and "the pinching, touching, feeling was considered to be friendly, not harassing." Even if we accept this preposterous premise, of course, it should be noted that the Oregon senator was also committing adultery, and I'm pretty sure there are some very old laws around describing that as a no-no as well.

Rating: 2. The lack of overt hypocrisy, and the creepiness of Packwood's advances leave this one without any innate comic value. Sex scandals are only funny if they involve consensual sex, after all.

1990s: Rep. Newt Gingrich

Now this is where things get fun.

Throughout his career, this Georgia lawmaker has been one of the biggest moral charlatans in American political discourse. While he was impeaching President Bill Clinton for lying under oath about his affair with Monica Lewinsky, Gingrich said that Clinton had shown "a level of disrespect and decadence that should appall every American" after he had reduced the office of the presidency to the "rough equivalent of the 'Jerry Springer' show." The whole time, of course, Newt was cheating on his second wife with a woman more than 20 years his younger (who would later become his third wife). And then there's the matter of his first wife, with whom Gingrich initiated a divorcewhile she was recovering from cancer surgery.

Rating: 7. Newt's untamed loins get high marks for their comic levels of hypocrisy. What's amazing about the guy is that he has absolutely no shame, even after being exposed as a fraud. Rather than taking a more, dare we say it, Christian approach, in not judging others lest he be judged, Newt is still going on television ranting about "a gay and secular fascism in this country" that is "a very dangerous threat to anybody who believes in traditional religion."

2006: Rep. Mark Foley

Just over one month before the 2006 midterm elections, ABC News reported that Florida Republican Foley had sent several sexually explicit e-mails to teenage congressional pages. He referred to one of the pages as "my favorite young stud" and told him that he was "never too busy" to "spank it." Foley abruptly resigned in disgrace.

Rating: 8. As I've said throughout, there's nothing funny about sexual harassment. However, this scandal rates highly because it not only doomed Foley's career, but it exposed him as an enormous hypocrite. Foley, you see, was fond of portrayinghimself as a defender of children. Indeed, the Washington Post reported after the scandal that Foley had "built his political career in large measure on legislative proposals meant to halt the sexual predation of children and others." Foley later explained to Timemagazine that he wasn't at all hypocritical for hitting on underage pages because "There was never anywhere in those conversations where someone said, 'Stop,' or 'I'm not enjoying this,' or 'This is inappropriate.' "

2007: Sen. David Vitter

On the surface, Vitter's habit of frequenting the infamous"D.C. Madam's" alleged den of inequity doesn't seem so bad. After all, he's just another family-values-lovin' pol who cheated on his wife with prostitutes. However, the rumors flying around that Vitter liked to be dressed up in adult diapers while at the brothel are what catapult this into an "Oh-this-must-be-a-Republican" sex scandal. The fact that the Louisiana senator would later co-sponsor the so-called "Marriage Protection Amendment" with Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, (see next entry) makes this all the juicier.

Rating: 6. A solidly weird effort on Vitter's part, but the scandal so far hasn't forced him out of his Senate seat.

2007: Sen. Larry Craig

This scandal had everything: failed attempts at sex in the seediest location imaginable; fumbling mishaps with law-enforcement agents; and one of the all-time greatest coverup lies told by any politician. Admit it: When you heard that Craig had been arrested for allegedly playing footsy with a cop in an airport bathroom stall, you heard a muted trumpet in your head going, "Waaah, waaaah, waaaaaaaaaaaaah!" Craig's subsequent denial of the charges was classic as well, as he said he only rubbed the cop's foot for five minutes because he employed a "wide stance" while sitting on the toilet.

Rating: Like Spinal Tap's amplifiers, this one goes to 11.

2009: Gov. Mark Sanford

What makes this scandal so bizarre really has nothing to do with the sex itself, but rather that: (a) South Carolina Gov. Sanford flew all the way down to Argentina to see his mistress and planned to stay there for more than a week; (b) he didn't tell anyone on his staff, who proceeded to embarrass themselves by claiming that Sanford was "hiking the Appalachian trail"; and (c) he apparently didn't think anyone in the state would notice that their governor had disappeared. If he had just kept his affair closer to home, he might still be on the fast track to the 2012 GOP presidential nomination. Alas, now it seems the Republicans are going to have to go to their fallback plan of nominating Joe the Plumber.

Rating: 9. Plenty of politicians have out-of-control libidos. But few are willing to go AWOL at their jobs for over a week to satisfy them.

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Brad Reed is a writer living in Boston. His work has previously appeared in the American Prospect Online, and he blogs frequently at Sadly, No!