Scraping Off the Mud : How Much Should You Care When Scandal Stains Your Name?


Clarence Thomas had returned, he told the Senate Judiciary Committee, not because he desperately wanted a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, but because he desperately wanted something else: the opportunity to restore his good name.

"This whole affair has been anguish for me," he told the senators, his voice resounding with emotion. "I feel as though something has been lodged against me and painted on me, and it will leave an indelible mark."

And, of course, he is right.

The bruising hearings are over, but the marks will linger on the reputations of the players, many of whom expressed fear under oath that their good names were being sullied.

But do they really need to worry? Does the concept of losing one's "good name" carry any weight these days, particularly in the area of private peccadilloes? Or can they rest assured that, as political author Suzanne Garment put it: "Everyone gets a second act"?

And perhaps least important, but most annoying, is it inevitable that someone will quote from Othello when this issue is raised? ( Who steals my purse steals trash . . . But he that filches from me my good name , etc., etc.)

"There was a time when everyone would have known what losing your name meant," says Garment, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "You carried your honor around with you, and you knew what it meant to lose it. But our sense of honor has become so attenuated, and we have become come so diverse and full of factions, that in many circles it doesn't mean what it used to."

Still, professors, political consultants and public relations people agree that damage has been done. As in any scandal, it is rehabilitation that is the big unknown.

"There is no doubt that everybody lost (in the Thomas hearings)," says Joe Cerrell, a Los Angeles-based political consultant. "You spend a lot of time building your name and reputation. It takes a lot of years to get to the top, but when you fall, you fall extremely fast. And people get a big charge out of people falling."

Whether a scandal will stain a good name, or even slightly spot one, depends on which arena of public life the accused operates in. In recent years, sexual escapades have tainted the names of people in religion, politics and entertainment. Some have indeed managed to reclaim the stage of public life for a second act; some have seen the curtain ring down on their careers.

After his most recent scandal (pulled over for traffic violations in Indio, while accompanied by a prostitute), Jimmy Swaggart, who has announced that God has told him to keep preaching, may have to kiss his credibility goodby.

"Swaggart has a problem," says Bruce Buchanan, professor of government at the University of Texas. "He would have to become a convincing male version of Mother Teresa. He has already strained his credibility past the point of easy recovery."

Of course, that is a matter for Swaggart's congregation and contributors to decide. Swaggart, it appears, believes in eternal rehabilitation.

Father Bruce Ritter, founder of Covenant House, a national shelter for runaways, was brought down by allegations that he'd had sex with underage boys in his care. Although never charged with a crime, he was recently transferred to a remote diocese in India.

"It is tragic," says Joseph Napolitan, a New York-based political consultant. "Nobody will have the kind of confidence in Father Ritter they had before."

On the other hand, actor Rob Lowe's career seems undamaged by the release of what came to be known as the "Lowe tapes," in which he was seen cavorting with an underage girl in a hotel during the 1988 Democratic political convention.

In the arena of politics, where the Thomas-Anita Hill drama played out, it is hard to say whose name ends up dirty and who ends up smelling like a--well, not smelling too much.

"The thing that will clear Clarence Thomas' name will be for him to be an intellectual force on the Supreme Court," says Howard Rubenstein, a 37-year veteran of political consulting and public relations in New York. "His reputation has been severely damaged even with the victory."

Despite Thomas' confirmation, Rubenstein thinks Hill, whose accusations have spotlighted the issue of sexual harassment, has emerged in a good light. "She will be a heroine on her campus and nationally," he says. "I don't think she is a psycho. If she ran for office, she could win."

Argues Garment: "Anita Hill's name was not ruined, but it was damaged. But how much depended very heavily on which audience you have in mind."

One of Thomas' corroborative witnesses, Austin, Tex., businessman John Doggett III, created fireworks when he exploded over the dirtying of his name by Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio). Metzenbaum read from a transcript of a telephone conversation between Senate aides and a woman who said she worked at the same law office as Doggett some 10 years ago, and that he had grabbed her in the copy room on her first day at work, kissed her and told her how much she would enjoy working with him.

Doggett, who repeatedly mentioned his Yale Law School and Harvard MBA credentials during the testimony, said in an interview from his office last week that he was not about to let his good name go down in flames.

"Here was this attempt to blow Doggett out of the water and to make him seem like an oversexed black man," he said. "And it was the same thing they were trying to do with Clarence."

Garment says Doggett is correct in assuming his name was at stake: "He is not a public figure and he doesn't have to run for office, but that is still very damaging."

Though neither Thomas nor Hill is a politician, the show was all politics. Some of the senators who sat in judgment surely were able to identify with the process of being accused of wrongdoing: Joseph Biden (plagiarism), Dennis DeConcini (Keating Five) and Ted Kennedy (Chappaquiddick).

"Once you have been through something like that you are changed," says Garment. "Although when there are so many, scandals become less important, because people say: 'Oh, well, there are just so many. And you really do see them bounce back.' "

Perhaps the most shining example of rehabilitation is former President Richard M. Nixon. The Watergate scandal forced him from office in disgrace. But he is back, taking the role of elder statesmen.

"Frankly, he played it just right," says Napolitan. "He stayed quiet as a mouse for six, eight years. Now he makes speeches. People forget."

Says Buchanan: "It is amazing how we tend to overreact to today's headlines, in terms of regarding them as setting a spin that is definitive and permanent. Time is a stream. New events and perceptions can override the old ones."

Many a good name has been ruined by accusations or admission of sexual indiscretion. (Why focus on sex? It's easier to understand than the intricacies of the savings-and-loan industry debacles. And the list is so long. Also, says Rubenstein, "Sex is the flypaper that sticks to the politician.")

* Gary Hart probably lost the presidency over his affair with Donna Rice. His aspirations may not have been crushed by the act itself; he was done in by his dishonesty. Plus, he challenged the media to prove him wrong. The media rose to the challenge with glee.

* Wilbur Mills, once the powerful Democratic chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, resigned in 1973 after a photographer snapped him with a stripper named Fanne Foxe, who jumped into the Tidal Basin in Washington.

* Wayne Hays, an Ohio Democratic congressman for 27 years, decided not to run for reelection--though he won his primary in a landslide--after it was disclosed by the Washington Post that his mistress, Elizabeth Ray, was on his Washington payroll.

* Rep. Tom Evans (R-Del.) lost his bid for reelection in 1982, shortly after he admitted having an extramarital affair with Washington lobbyist Paula Parkinson, who posed for Playboy.

* Rep. Donald (Buz) Lukens (R-Ohio) was convicted of a misdemeanor sex offense with an underage girl in 1989. He resigned from Congress in 1990 after being accused of fondling a female elevator operator in the Capitol.

But not everyone implicated in a sex scandal loses face.

In 1983, Reps. Daniel Crane (R-Ill.) and Gerry Studds (D-Mass.) admitted having sex with underage congressional pages, a girl in Crane's case and a boy in Studds'. The pair was formally censured by the House. But while Crane was defeated in the next election, Studds was reelected.

All the spin doctors say the best way to deal with a brewing scandal is to confront it, admit the error if it is true and promise it won't happen again. In time--depending, of course, on the charity of one's constituency--one's good name can be restored.

Still, there will probably always be the whispers, the doubts.

As Napolitan puts it: "A girl I used to know 30 years ago said that she once had a boyfriend who had his two front teeth knocked out. He had (a dental piece) he could put in and take out, and she said: 'Let me see how you look without your two front teeth.' He said: 'No; if I do, you will never feel the same about me.' She kept badgering him, and he finally showed her.

"And she said: 'You know, I never did feel the same about him after that.' "

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World