If consistency is the rare jewel it’s cracked up to be, we’ve got a diamond mine on Capitol Hill.
Congress did not invent sleaze and sordid behavior, but it was refined and perfected on the Hill. Mark Twain called Congress our only native criminal class, but neither party can take credit for making it so.
Democrats, Republicans, liberals, conservatives, black and white have all served with zeal, if not necessarily distinction, on the faculty of the Congressional School for Scandal.
Rep. Gary Condit of California, a Democrat who seduced an intern and lied to the cops about it when she went missing and the search for her grew cold, is only the latest in a line of grunting and groping public servants who became the stuff of public ridicule. On the whole, our congressional professors of scandal do it with no elan and very little eclat. The interns and aides who come to Washington to learn about politics and governing often see more groping than governing. The din of zippers zipping and pants popping can be deafening.
Democrats have kept their jobs more often than Republicans in the wake of discovery and shame, perhaps because Democratic constituencies are generally more tolerant of booze, drugs and assorted sordid sins and expect their representatives to practice what they preach. Some sins, to employ an out-of-fashion word, are worse than others. Abusing women, as Bill Clinton demonstrated, is OK, though most other officeholders are expected to do it after office hours. Spreading AIDS with gay abandon is, if not OK, nothing to criticize or condemn. Smoking, however, is bad, very bad. Republican constituencies, on the other hand, usually consign their naughty-doers, once caught, to defeat and oblivion (and to lucrative lobbying careers).
Rep. Wilbur Mills of Arkansas (naturally), dead now 20 years, is nevertheless still the big daddy of the scandalmeisters of the modern era. He hung on for another term after he got caught in the wee hours of a night in 1974 when his mistress, a stripper named Fanne Fox (“the Argentine firecracker”), leaped from his car after a night on the town and jumped into the Tidal Basin. Too bad for Wilbur, a radio reporter happened onto the merry scene.
Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, a Democrat who put the gay dogs of Washington on the map, maybe made a little money at it. He was censured by the House Ethics Committee after his lover, a male hooker, was discovered running a whorehouse in Barney’s apartment and Barney was discovered using his congressional offices to fix the madam’s parking tickets. Barney said he hadn’t known what was going on upstairs — he was only the piano-player and all those soggy towels and discarded condoms never caught his eye — and his colleagues believed him. Or said they did. The censure was for the parking tickets, not the whoring.
Gaiety, in fact, has done in Members (as congressmen call themselves with no intended irony) from both parties. Rep. Bob Bauman of Maryland, a Republican, pleaded not guilty to soliciting sexual favors from a teen-age boy but was defeated despite the Reagan landslide of 1980. Rep. Jon Hinson of Mississippi, a Republican, acknowledged attending homosexual “events” and barely survived a primary in his culturally conservative district. The next year he was arrested for attempted sodomy in a Capitol Hill men’s room, and resigned.
Rep. Daniel Crane of Illinois, a Republican, was censured for soliciting sexual favors from a House page, a 17-year-old girl, and was bounced out of office. Rep. Gerry Studds of Massachusetts, a Democrat, was censured for soliciting a House page, a 17-year-old boy, and was rewarded with re-election and committee chairmanships.
Bob Packwood kissed a couple of women who might have otherwise gone unkissed and was forced to resign from the Senate. His crime was compounded by whispers that he was a lousy lover. Rep. Mel Reynolds of Illinois, a Democrat, was convicted of sexual relations with a 16-year-old girl and served five years for statutory rape. His sentence was commuted by Bill Clinton, who was once accused — credibly, many people thought — of rape himself.
Like Bill Clinton, Gary Condit has perfected the skills of manipulation as well as seduction. With the help of a compliant media, the congressman has succeeded in portraying himself as victim, not cad (or worse). His congressional colleagues, some of whom fear the lifting of the rocks under which they live much of their lives, go along with the fashion that whatever a man does after office hours, however sordid or hurtful to others, doesn’t count. This was a defense that never occurred to Al Capone, who rarely had anyone rubbed out during office hours.