It's been 24 years since Gary Hart saw his political fortunes dashed by the revelation of a lone picture showing the former Colorado senator in a precarious position. Followed by a string of firm denials at odds with mounting contradictory evidence, there was outrage, David Letterman jokes, and a less-than-graceful bowing out.
Besides that last part, Anthony Weiner's lived a condensed version of the Hart saga in the course of a week. But while Hart -- unelected and running for president at the time -- stepped away from the race, should Rep. Weiner resign?
A section of the chattering class bridging ideological divides seems to have coalesced around the affirmative. Weiner is guilty of many transgressions, depending on the source. He has "obliterated the bond of trust" with his constituents, says a local paper with a knack for quippy headlines. RNC Chairman Reince Priebus says Weiner has doled out "scandal-tainted money" to fellow House Democrats, and according to one fellow scandal-ridden TV host, the Twitter-obsessed pol should step down only "if [he] believe[s] in [himself]," whatever that means.
There's agreement across the spectrum that Weiner's offense -- allegedly sending "inappropriate" pictures and messages to a half-dozen women through various social media outlets -- is resignation-worthy. All, however, want him to do it for different reasons. That's because there's no clear moral hierarchy when it comes to impropriety; instead, our leaders tend to value political motivations over a real grounded sense of what they believe to be right and wrong.
Take a look at a short list of politicians who became embroiled in sex scandals yet continued to serve: Sen. Larry Craig, Gov. Mark Sanford, Sen. David Vitter, President Clinton, and, as of today, Weiner.
And those who have failed to survive the storm of sexual indiscretions? Just recently, we've had Sen. John Ensign, Rep. Chris Lee, Gov. Eliot Spitzer, Rep. Mark Souder, and Gov. Jim McGreevey.
If you don't notice a difference between the two lists, it's because there isn't much of one. Both include men from both parties at varying levels of elected office, both statewide and federal, whose indiscretions range from staffer affairs, admitted fraternizing with prostitutes, social media blunders, and declarations -- confirmed or otherwise -- of closet homosexuality.
Some resigned after just hours, some took weeks and months. Some saw their popularity plummet following the revelations, while others were re-elected even after the facts became public. But what's perfectly clear across every example is that, beyond the growing cliché that no party holds a premium on issues honesty, moral fiber and family values, the political whims of the time and a set of roving standards govern how we treat -- and most importantly, what we expect from -- our sex-starved elected officials.
Recent days have seen comparisons between House Speaker John Boehner's response to Lee's Craigslist fiasco to that of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in light of Weiner's revelations. Whereas Boehner reportedly called for Lee's head immediately, Pelosi is urging calm and an ethics investigation. Boehner's no better on the issue of caucus discipline, it's just that it's easier to tell a second-term congressman from upstate New York to pack his bags than it is to tell the same thing to the former presumptive frontrunner in the next New York City mayoral election.
Partisanship has fueled calls from Priebus for Weiner's resignation, and for a blowhard like Ed Schultz, any deflective attention paid to another is less time spent focusing on his highly unfortunate use of words directed at conservative commentator Laura Ingraham. Had Weiner been a Republican, there'd be silence from Priebus and pitchforks from Debbie Wasserman Schultz. And had the other Schultz, Ed, used a better choice of words, he'd be much more sympathetic to Weiner -- one of Schultz's frequent guests and an ideological kindred spirit -- than he is as he tries to rebuild his credibility on MSNBC and the radio.
Until we come up with a set of consistent measures by which we can judge the severity of these sadly common situations, we can't pretend to stake the moral high ground in the name of political expediency and only when there's no accountability from case to case. It's not unfair to say that Weiner should resign; it's simply unfair to say so because of political motives hidden behind phrases like violations of trust and broken bonds with voters. If he should resign, let's base it around something that can be applied during future political scandals, not impulse or politics. Is breaking the law the breaking point? What about staff fraternization? Where the line sits is a debate worth having, but whether there should be a line is not.
Pictures can be worth a thousand words. In the most recent case, though, one of those words is not "resignation." Should it be? Maybe, but let's assess the facts in the context of situations and based on real standards, not as responsive episodes that help fuel our political agendas. We can't treat scandal the same for politics' sake.
After all, what's good for the Weiner isn't always good for the Hart.
Follow Malcom Glenn on Twitter: www.twitter.com/malcomglenn