Two of the most cringe-inducing politicians of recent years, Mark Sanford and Anthony Weiner, are attempting to restart their careers. This provides us with a graduate seminar in reputation management, the late night comics with oodles of good material, and voters with even more reasons to question the very idea of American representative democracy.
In case you are blessed with a poor memory, Sanford is the former South Carolina governor who gave new meaning to the phrase "hiking the Appalachian trail," using that as a cover story while conducting a tryst with his Argentine mistress. He is in the midst of a floundering bid to regain his old seat in Congress in a special election that will be held May 7.
Weiner, meanwhile, is the former congressman from New York who posted an eponymous photograph of his barely underwear-cloaked nether region on Twitter. He is considering running for mayor of New York City.
After relatively short hiatuses from public view, both of these men are trying to take shortcuts on the path to reputation rehabilitation and demonstrating the hazards associated with them.
Here is the problem, gentlemen. Corny as it may sound, serving in public office is a matter of public trust. I know, the offices of Congress and City Hall are crawling with all sorts of disreputable characters who may be worse than you and who just haven't been caught. But that doesn't mean that the voters like this sorry state of affairs. In fact it's one of the reasons elected officials and members of Congress in particular are held in such low esteem by their fellow citizens.
Americans are forgiving people, and we love comeback stories. But if you have publicly and memorably violated the public's trust, you have to prove to us three things before you get a second chance: First, you need to show in some convincing way that you really understand why trust is a big deal, and why we are unhappy when you break that trust. This sounds easier than it is, so a lot of people try to fake it.
Second, you need to pay a price. You need to do some form of penance: serve time in jail if you've committed a crime, or put your energy to a good use that doesn't enrich yourself, but which makes the world a little bit better in some meaningful way. This will also help make the case that you deserve to be trusted again. Third, demonstrate that you have made some fundamental change in your behavior that gives us confidence that you aren't going to do this all over again. It can involve therapy, rehabilitation, or just getting on with life in a way that demonstrates stability and trustworthiness.
But all this takes time, and there is no calendar for exactly how much time. Sanford's scandal happened nearly four years ago and it ended his marriage, but not his term in office, which ended only in 2011. Now he's engaged to the former mistress. When his ex-wife accused him of trespassing this past February, it caused enough concern that the National Republican Congressional Committee decided not to provide financial support to Sanford's campaign.
If you want a job as a lawmaker, you need to show that you know how to obey the rules yourself. The last person who should be writing rules to govern the rest of us is the guy who thinks those rules don't apply to him.
In Weiner's case, his scandal happened less than two years ago. Although he resigned from Congress, the ink had barely dried on his final speech before speculation started that he might still be a contender for the 2013 mayor's race. Weiner confirmed that speculation when he launched a major publicity blitz, highlighted by a cover feature in the New York Times Magazine two weeks ago. He even returned to Twitter this week, generating 10,000 followers at this writing.
Unlike Sanford, however, Weiner hasn't had any obvious stumbles since his scandal. It also helps a lot that he apparently earned his wife's forgiveness and began therapy, but the pace is still blurring, and it makes you wonder if the "new Weiner" is sustainable.
The ever-increasing speed of our Internet-fueled social culture may be leading a lot of people to assume that reputations can be repaired and trust restored in ever shorter timespans. I hope that is not the case. Some things – like trust – should take time. They should be earned through sustained and meaningful action, not through sheer volume of Tweets or Facebook "likes," which don't require much in the way of thought or effort. If Sanford or Weiner are able to shortcircuit this trust-building process, it might be good for their careers, but I doubt it will be good for the rest of us.