An Affair to Remember? Politicians' Infidelity Doesn't Matter Anymore

Recent allegations against Vance McAllister reveal Washington's disinterest.

Rep. Vance McAllister, R-La., waits to be sworn in at the Capitol in Washington D.C.

Rep. Vance McAllister, R-La., was caught on video kissing a staffer.

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A grainy surveillance video captured his transgression: A married congressman with his shirt untucked turned off the lights, approached an aide and kissed her in a full embrace.

There might be a sexual harassment class in his and his colleagues’ future, but Rep. Vance McAllister, R-La. – a husband, father and lawmaker who was elected on a platform of strong family values – likely will emerge from this misstep publicly unscathed. His aide, meanwhile, has left his employ and appears headed for a divorce.

On Wednesday, McAllister was set to leverage his infidelity into a tough-on-crime message by sending a letter to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, requesting the FBI investigate who handed over the security footage to a local newspaper.

“Clearly, what the congressman did was wrong, and he’s taking responsibility for his actions. However, a breach in security in a federal office is a grave concern for us,” Adam Terry, McAllister’s chief of staff, told The News Star, a local paper in Monroe, La.

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McAllister likely isn’t going to resign from Congress or retreat from public life. And why would he? The latest infidelity scandal could have rocked Washington, but “This Town” barely shook. In an era when Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., can launch a political comeback after secretly escaping to Argentina to carry on an affair, it's safe to say the standard has been set pretty low. Even in the upper chamber, GOP Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, who once admitted to committing a “serious sin” after being tied to a prostitution ring, still roams the hallways, shirking media questions and no worse for the wear. Louisiana voters will have a chance to elect him as their governor in 2015. He’s leading in the polls.

It appears the culture of scandal has come full circle in Washington. What once was viewed as a private matter is out there for all to see, but in the age of instant gratification – a time when affairs are plot points portrayed in fictionalized tales of Washington’s dysfunction – the shock factor might be dissipating. When the House majority whip is sleeping with a reporter and the best fixer in town’s got a romance with the commander in chief on TV, a real-life office kiss loses its luster. Tales of infidelity are everywhere, so does anyone really care?

In the 1960s, the media looked the other way as President John F. Kennedy ushered myriad women to and from the White House and President Lyndon Johnson engaged in extramarital affairs. After Watergate, distrust in Washington grew, and even politicians' after-hours activities became fair game. In the 1970s and 1980s, scandals came and went, leaving a handful of disgraced politicians in their wake. But sometime after President Bill Clinton was caught having “sexual relations” with an intern, the repercussions politicians faced for engaging in infidelity began to change.

“There has clearly been a shift,” says Tevi Troy, author of the book “What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted.” “If what happened to Bill Clinton happened in the 1960s, he never would have survived.”

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Voters have started to view personal transgressions as a human flaw, but not one that automatically interferes with job performance. Take Rep. Scott DesJarlais, a fervent anti-abortion lawmaker who, according to reports, had multiple affairs during his marriage and even asked one of the women – a medical patient of DesJarlais' whom the congressman claimed was faking her pregnancy – to have an abortion. Not only did DesJarlais, R-Tenn., stay in Congress, he won re-election a few weeks later.

“We don’t expect politicians to be good people. We don’t need them to be good people. What we still need is for them to be good representatives,” says Michael G. Miller, a political science professor at the University of Illinois, Springfield who studies voters’ perceptions.

A Quinnipiac poll out this week showed that constituents are far more forgiving of extramarital affairs than they are of outright corruption. In the survey, voters were asked if they would vote for a married congressman who had cheated on his wife. Forty-nine percent said they would not. Yet, when voters were asked if they would vote for a congressman who had created a job for an underqualified family member, 69 percent said they would not vote to re-elect him.

Clearly, voters are viewing personal transgressions far less seriously than abuses of power. Unless a politician is a serial offender these days, it appears most can survive a single blow.    

“If it’s a one-time thing, people will forgive you,” Miller says. “Look at Newt Gingrich – he came back and ran for president.”

Corrected on April 9, 2014: A previous version of this story stated that the staffer caught kissing McAllister was let go from her position.