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Spitzer, sex scandals and comebacks

By Margaret Carlson
Bloomberg News

WASHINGTON And now for something completely the same: another disgraced official staging a comeback. Eliot Spitzer, the former New York state governor, has announced that he is running for New York City comptroller. You have to wonder if a sex scandal hasn’t become just another way to get free media time and name recognition.

Really, who knew Anthony Weiner before he was forced to resign his congressional seat because he had texted photos of his barely concealed male parts to women near and far? Despite it all, according to a front-page article in the New York Times this weekend, Weiner is being granted a second chance: Almost every professional following the New York City mayoral race puts him in the runoff.

Not everyone gets to come back as a serious candidate. A few people disappear. Remember Sen. Larry Craig, the archconservative who adopted a wide stance in a restroom in the Minneapolis airport, and Rep. Mark Foley, whose transgressions involved underage congressional pages. The other career ender is to cheat on a dying wife with a videographer and then try to excuse yourself by saying the affair occurred while the cancer was in remission. We have seen the last of former senator John Edwards.

But second acts are more common than not. Spitzer is hoping to follow in the footsteps of Sen. David Vitter, who won re-election in Louisiana after being linked to the D.C. Madam. Former governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina looked finished after we learned he wasn’t hiking on the Appalachian Trail with or without his Argentinian mistress; he is now representing his state in the House of Representatives.

You can make the case that running for that House seat helped Sanford put the shameful episode behind him. If you were on a public stage, you need another one – and here’s where a campaign comes in – from which to beg forgiveness. A little humility, references to religious concepts such as redemption and penance, a press corps to write about it all, and voila, your pollster has you in double digits.

Spitzer has a long, hard slog. The details of his fall are pathetic: elaborate ruses to meet up with high-end hookers who were paid on a sliding scale depending on what unsafe practices they were willing to engage in. Client 9, as he was known at the Emperors Club V.I.P. escort service, supposedly kept his socks on. At the March 2008 news conference where he announced his resignation, his wife, Silda Spitzer, stood heroically by him, in a jaunty scarf she had the grace to add in the midst of the worst event in their long life together.

But Spitzer can find inspiration in the pantheon of those who have overcome worse (see above and President Bill Clinton). He also will be helped by his post-scandal steps back into public life (a Newsweek cover story, a show on CNN, a financial column, and frequent guest-speaker appearances at global conferences) and his record as the sheriff of Wall Street, which still desperately needs one. He is running for an office suited to his talents: The New York City comptroller manages $140 billion in pension funds and sees to the financial health of the five boroughs. It is also suitably humble, a bit of a step down from his previous incarnations as attorney general, governor and possible presidential candidate.

It’s also an office where he won’t be in New Yorkers’ faces every day or leading prayers at Ground Zero. That comes later. First, he must prove himself in a sleepy backroom of city hall. If his hopes are higher, and everyone thinks they are, there is another lesson to be learned from the disgraced politician handbook. Be in love and be a good father. Look at Weiner’s apology tour. Pictures of Weiner with his baby son are slowly replacing those tweeted selfies.

It was as a father that Sanford got me back. When, near the end of his congressional campaign, his wife, Jenny, charged him with trespassing for going to their former home when she was away, Sanford explained that he was there because he didn’t think his son should have to watch the Super Bowl alone.

Over to you, Candidate Spitzer. Thank Silda, the mother of your children, for standing by you when it counted most. Hold your daughters close. There’s no telling how far, in the new political world, you can go.

Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.
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