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Fascination with political sex scandals is unsettling

What’s worse, a love child or a sex tape? A high-priced call girl or a mistress soul mate? An illicit affair with the wife of a friend or a tryst with a stranger in cyberspace?

That’s the balancing act required to figure out how New York Rep. Anthony Weiner rates in the rogues’ gallery of politicians disgraced by sexual shenanigans.

Weiner is a Democrat, but no party has a monopoly on sexual indiscretion.

Photos: A decade of D.C. sex scandals

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I think Weiner ranks somewhere between the kings of sleaze — Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had a long-term affair and secret child under his wife’s nose with the family’s housekeeper, and John Edwards, who betrayed his dying wife with his New Age mistress — and the clueless Chris Lee, the married New York congressman who resigned earlier this year after a shirtless photo revealed he’d been pretending to be a divorced lobbyist while trolling Craigslist for women.

Consider Weiner’s progenitors, culled from just the last few years:

• The fellows who frequented prostitutes, such as former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, whose rendezvous with a $1,000-an-hour call girl led to his resignation, and Louisiana Sen. David Vitter, whose “very serious sin” involving a Capitol Hill call girl ring did not.

• The guys who had sex with their buddies’ wives, such as former Nevada Sen. John Ensign, who stepped down in the midst of an ethics investigation into his affair with the wife of an aide, and California’s own Gavin Newsom, who was elected lieutenant governor even after admitting that as mayor of San Francisco, he had an affair with his campaign manager’s wife.

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• The married men involved with men, such as former New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey, who held a news conference to announce that he was gay and had an adulterous affair with a man on his staff.

• The Marks, Foley and Sanford. Former Florida Rep. Mark Foley resigned after sending sexually explicit messages to teenage boys. South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford stayed in office despite an adulterous love affair with his self-described “soul mate,” a woman in Argentina.

What makes Weiner’s scandal so compelling is not the magnitude of his offense, which pales in comparison with some of these guys’ deeds. It’s the titillation factor, and attendant high drama:

The outraged denials, and tearful admissions; the crude crotch shots and trashy transcripts. And our own public penchant for voyeurism.

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I’d never heard of Anthony Weiner before he burst bare-chested onto the national scene last month. And I’m not convinced that “the good of the country,” as one wag said, rests on whether he resigns or not.

Politicians have been calling for his resignation; He’s an embarrassment to his party, they say.

But Weiner’s constituents seem unruffled by his sexual antics. Maybe he’s closer to the norm than we’d like to admit.

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“I know that not every guy is like that, but most guys are crazy for women. They lose their minds,” a man from Queens told The Times’ Tina Susman.

I’ve heard much the same on the streets out here. At the bar, the coffee shop, the beauty salon, Weiner’s actions have been greeted less with outrage than with a simple, more prosaic question: How can a smart man be so dumb?

If there’s a lesson for Weiner it’s pretty simple: Girls talk. If a famous politician — or entertainer or athlete — sends me a naked picture, I am going to share it with my friends.

And I’m going to keep those text messages and Facebook posts … just like Monica Lewinsky kept that blue dress with the stains that sank Bill Clinton.

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And if there’s a lesson for us, it’s harder to fathom.

This episode of sex, lies and stupidity feels a lot like ground we’ve already trod, a throwback to the uncomfortable questions the Clinton scandal foisted on us.

“Is oral sex really sex?” was the question of the day back then.

Now Weiner has us wondering: “Is it an affair if you never touched her?”

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The bigger question is harder to answer, and has less to do with sex, than fidelity — to your family, your community, your commitment.

What can we expect — and should we accept — from the people we elect to lead us?

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I feel sorry for Weiner’s wife and don’t much care what happens to him now. I don’t think we need an ethics investigation.

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To find out what? Whether he used his government-issued phone to take embarrassing pictures of his crotch?

We already know he’s an arrogant liar. And we have bigger fish to fry.

Maybe I’ve just had my fill of tawdry confessions and tardy mea culpas. But the public spectacle surrounding Weiner has begun to resemble its own kind of porn.

As I watched the televised news conference this week, our public obsession with private compulsions seemed more than a little unsettling.

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“Did you have phone sex?” one reporter kept shouting out over the din.

At that moment, I felt my sympathies shift.

How far are we justified to go? How deep can we, in good conscience, dig?

We might be wise to take a page from David Paterson, who inherited the job as governor when New York’s Spitzer was felled by the call girl scandal.

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Rumors of infidelity immediately surfaced, and Paterson and his wife addressed them.

Every relationship has hard times, he told reporters. I had affairs. My wife had affairs. We repaired our marriage and moved on.

Maybe it’s time for us to do likewise.

Move on. Let Weiner slink home to his lovely wife and try to become the kind of man the child she’s carrying won’t be ashamed to call Dad.

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Photos: A decade of D.C. sex scandals

sandy.banks@latimes.com


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