Two-faced: Sex, lies and apologies

wwashington@thestate.comOctober 11, 2009 

  • Clintonesque?

    The parallels between the 42nd president and South Carolina's governor in dealing with a sex scandal

    THE LIE

    President Bill Clinton: Clinton denied having a sexual relationship with an intern. He would later admit to having a relationship with Monica Lewinsky.

    Gov. Mark Sanford: Sanford lied to his staff about his whereabouts over five days in June, telling them he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. Sanford would later admit he had been to Argentina to see his lover.

    THE INVESTIGATION

    Clinton: Special prosecutor Kenneth Starr began his probe looking into the Clintons' business dealings, the firing of staff in the White House travel office and the use of some FBI files. Clinton's impeachable offense occurred when he lied under oath about his affair with Lewinsky. That relationship was not the focus of the original investigation, but it ultimately sank Clinton.

    Sanford: The S.C. Ethics Commission is looking into Sanford's use of the state plane, whether he properly reported rides on private planes and his use of campaign money. But Sanford's biggest problem, like Clinton, might be lying about his whereabouts and secretly leaving the state. Some lawmakers want to build an impeachment case on that fact.

    THE IMPEACHMENT FIGHT

    Clinton: On Dec. 19, 1998, the 42nd president of the United States was impeached by the U.S. House on a mainly party line vote. The U.S. Senate, however, did not vote to remove Clinton from office. He finished his term, which expired in 2000.

    Sanford: The S.C. House will take up an impeachment resolution when the General Assembly goes back into session. Unlike Clinton, Sanford does not enjoy much party support. Both the House Republican and Democratic caucuses have asked Sanford to resign. There may be the votes in the House to impeach Sanford. But some political observers think Sanford could survive a vote to remove him in the Senate, which would match Clinton's fate.

    Governor's schedule

    After Gov. Mark Sanford vanished for five days in June and acknowledged an extramarital affair on his return to the state, his office started issuing a schedule for the embattled governor. Sanford's public schedule for next week is:

    Monday - Address to Columbia Rotary, 12:30 p.m., Seawell's, 1125 Rosewood Drive

    Tuesday - Cabinet meeting, 9:30 a.m., Wade Hampton Building, State House grounds; also, an economic development announcement, 1 p.m., North Charleston

    Wednesday - Address to Simpsonville Rotary, 12:15 p.m., 126 Old Main St., Simpsonville; also, visit with JVS Inc. Roofing Contractors, 1:30 p.m., 1011 Old Stage Road, Simpsonville

    Thursday - Address to Abbeville Rotary, 12:30 p.m., location to be determined, Abbeville

It is a pairing no self-respecting Republican could enjoy, but GOP Gov. Mark Sanford and Democratic former President Bill Clinton are linked - at least in the way they handle scandal.

Extramarital affairs mushroomed into far-reaching scandal for both men, and both followed a similar path in fighting for their political survival.

First, they lied until the lying could be exposed.

Next were apologies and high-profile efforts to "get back to work."

As the scandals persisted, both men argued it was really about politics, old enemies looking to settle scores. They took a vacation that got them away, temporarily, from the heat of the scandal. And they made their case to a scandal-weary public that they were being hounded legally because of a personal indiscretion for which they long ago sought forgiveness.

That strategy did not spare Clinton from paying a huge political price; he was, after all, only the second president in U.S. history to be impeached.

Clinton, however, was not removed from office, and, while his vice president lost the race to succeed him, his wife went on to win a seat in the U.S. Senate and is now secretary of state.

The last chapters of the Sanford saga have yet to be written - nor is it clear who will write those chapters.

Jenny Sanford, whose standing has risen while her husband's has plummeted, has said she plans to write a memoir.

Impeachment proceedings against the governor still seem likely. But Sanford, like Clinton, could be spared the indignity of removal from office.

"The question is, 'What are we going to do?'" said state Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland. "Is what he has done so egregious that he must be removed?"

That question hangs over Sanford's legal battle to prevent the S.C. Ethics Commission, which has been examining allegations about the governor's travel and expenses, from releasing a preliminary report to the S.C. House of Representatives. It follows him when he asks ordinary citizens to forgive him. And it's there when the two-term governor holds up charts and graphs as he makes policy presentations.

Political observers say Sanford would be in a stronger position at this point if he had come clean - honestly and succinctly - and asked for forgiveness as soon as questions were raised about his five-day disappearance in June.

"The reason people get in trouble is because they dissemble," Mike McCurry, Clinton's press secretary during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, said at a communications seminar last month at the College of Charleston. "They don't offer up the truth. They don't get to the truth quickly.

"They try to obscure or cover up things. These are always the elements that make scandals worse."

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said Sanford did not heed that political truth.

"He could have gotten it all out there, taken the substantial hit - which would have been permanent in terms of his political future - but then it would have been over," Sabato said. "This way, it just drags on."

A PUBLIC LIE

Sanford allowed his staff to tell reporters - and, through them, the public - that their boss was hiking on the Appalachian Trail when he was really in Argentina visiting his lover. On the day of his return to the United States, he told a State newspaper reporter he had gone to South America to get away from it all, to drive along the coast. He said he had been alone.

After he was told the newspaper had copies of e-mails between him and his Argentinean lover, Sanford publicly admitted to the affair during a press conference later that day.

Asked specifically last week if Sanford would have admitted publicly to the affair if not for the e-mails, the governor's spokesman, Ben Fox, would not give a direct answer.

"We've addressed issues in the past, indeed in the past, and the governor is committed to moving forward as a state," Fox said.

Like Sanford when he was asked about his disappearance, Clinton also avoided the truth as investigators and reporters asked him about rumors that he had had an affair with Lewinsky, a former White House intern.

The president angrily shook his finger and insisted he did not "have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky."

Clinton's story changed after Lewinsky made a deal with independent counsel Kenneth Starr and gave him a blue dress stained with the president's DNA.

"I did have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate," Clinton later acknowledged.

A STIFF-ARM AND TURN

Neal Thigpen, a political science professor at Francis Marion University, said he sees Sanford-Clinton similarities in the way both men tried to prevent public disclosure of investigative efforts.

Clinton refused to testify in Starr's investigation, doing so only after he was subpoenaed.

Sanford, despite initial pledges of transparency, has sought to prevent the State Ethics Commission from releasing its initial findings, yet to be completed.

The governor has gone to the S.C. Supreme Court to make his case that the release of those findings would be unfair to him because it would not contain his defense.

"There are parallels," Thigpen said of Sanford and Clinton. "Both sought to stonewall. This business of going to the Supreme Court . . . a lot of people are mystified."

There are other parallels.

Just as their scandals entered the white-hot phase, both Clinton and Sanford left town.

Clinton took a vacation to Martha's Vineyard; Sanford traveled to Europe.

Their scandals, however, still were alive when they returned.

Clinton, in acknowledging his relationship with Lewinsky, attempted a quick pivot from scandal back to governing.

"Our country has been distracted by this matter for too long, and I take my responsibility for my part in all of this," he said. "That is all I can do now. Now is the time - in fact, it is past time - to move on."

Clinton, unlike Sanford, did not give extensive interviews where he discussed his behavior in hard-to-believe detail.

He did not call Lewinsky his "soulmate," the term Sanford used in a long interview he granted to The Associated Press to describe his lover, Maria Belen Chapur.

Even while fighting the Ethics Commission, Sanford is attempting to also turn back to governing.

Sanford's spokesman said his boss now is focusing on "serious things" like his effort to bring jobs to South Carolina and restructure state government.

But the governor's legal battle with the Ethics Commission is complicating that effort, political observers say.

"I don't think you ever win when you fight against transparency, especially when you've been a chief advocate of it," Jackson said.

"He's fighting at every turn," Thigpen said. "It looks bad for him. I think it makes him look more guilty."

HANDLING SCANDAL

Don Fowler, chairman of the Democratic National Committee during Clinton's second term, said there is a big difference between how the former president and current governor handled scandal.

Clinton, Fowler said, had seasoned, professional help in managing his efforts to govern and to deal with the political and legal ramifications of scandal.

"From the outside, I can't see that anybody is managing Gov. Sanford's matters," Fowler said. "I don't get any sense that there is a systemic approach."

Ultimately, voters determine the fate of those embroiled in political scandal.

Elected officials who hold the power to investigate or move on usually take their cues from voters.

With a strong economy and a series of policy achievements to point to, Clinton was able to make the case that he was being dragged down by politics to the detriment of the American people.

"People want . . . the elected official (to get) back to the business that they're in charge of doing," McCurry said at the College of Charleston seminar. "At the end of the day, most people forgave Clinton because they said, 'He is doing his job, and I like the job he is doing.'"

Democrats also rallied behind fellow Democrat Clinton. But elected Republicans in South Carolina have largely turned away from fellow Republican Sanford.

"Here, you have both the Republicans and Democrats calling for the governor's early retirement," Sabato said.

Reach senior writer Wayne Washington at (803) 771-8385.

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