There are two possible explanations for the stunningly speedy departure of Christopher Lee from Congress: either there’s more to the story than we know, or Lee is displaying a level of honorability that arguably says more about his character than his apparent effort to find dates on Craigslist.
Lee, the gossip website Gawker reported, had sent E-mails to a 34-year-old, unnamed, single woman who had announced she was looking for a man who was "financially and emotionally secure" and did not look like a "toad." Why anyone would respond to such a snotty ad is baffling, but Lee, it seems, did respond, calling himself a 39-year-old divorced lobbyist (he’s 46 and married) and sending a photo of himself, shirtless. Before the story of the shirtless photo had even had time to circulate, Lee resigned, apologizing for his "profound mistakes" and promising to work hard to earn people’s forgiveness.
What a contrast from the reaction of others in politics. It took former New York Democratic Gov. Eliot Spitzer two days to announce his resignation after The New York Times reported he had been a client of a prostitution service. Spitzer previously had been the state’s attorney general, and it still took him two days to figure out that breaking the law, after serving as the state’s chief law enforcement officer, was probably a deal-breaker for his constituents. Bizarrely, Spitzer attended a white-tie Washington dinner with journalists and politicos the Saturday night before the Times story appeared, although he surely knew the story was coming. [See the month's best cartoons.]
Sen. David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican, ran for and won re-election despite reports linking him to a prostitution service, Sen. John Ensign, a Nevada Republican, has hung on despite revelations that he had an affair with a married former staffer.
Lee, from what we know, didn’t break any laws. It’s not even clear he actually had an affair; he was apparently looking for a date, but it’s impossible to know if he was just flirting as some sort of escape, or whether he planned to follow through. His lack of guile—how could he possibly think he wouldn’t be found out as a married congressman, or that someone would forward his E-mails and photos?—suggests he’s not too smooth as a would-be philanderer.
Lee was a rising star in the Republican party, and with good reason. He was well-liked, bright, and won the appreciation of Western New Yorkers for his work on aviation safety after a Continental Connection flight crashed in the Buffalo area in February of 2009. (I attended both junior high school and high school with Lee, but did not know him then.) [See editorial cartoons about the Republican Party.]
Maybe there’s a back story that would have been more damaging to Lee if he had attempted to hang onto his job. But given what we know, it looks more like Lee is doing exactly what he said: sparing his district and the Congress from an unnecessary distraction, and his wife, from further embarrassment. Lee will surely be the subject of jokes for his awkward E-mails and shirtless photo. But he should be commended for ultimately doing what others in politics have been reluctant to do—putting his fellow Western New Yorkers and his family ahead of his personal ambition.