Let’s imagine the next political scandal. Which politician will be enticed into a sex tryst? Who will be tempted to actually do an actual favor for a backer with money?
More importantly, how did the exposure come? Will it be a stray hi-tech error? A political enemy looking to get even? A tipster in search of recognition or redemption? A stray tape or video clip?
Let’s assume that for every known “accident” befalling a politician, there are 10 more that haven’t come out — yet.
You’ve been commissioned to write a succinct manual for an aspiring politician about how to stay out of trouble. Where will you start?
Gen. David Petraeus, who directed the U.S. military in Afghanistan and later headed up the C.I.A., quit Thursday. His affair with a biographer was discovered in a routine inquiry through computer emails. It reportedly started with an unusual email sent to the biographer, Paula Broadwell, not from Petraeus.
For all those hooked on emails, tweets, social media, and texting: get over anything that leaves a paper trail. Try old-fashioned talk. Stay off the phone. Didn’t Linda Tripp tape Monica Lewinsky on the horn and lead to the discovery of President Bill Clinton’s affair with an intern?
An ex-mayor of Detroit and his chief of staff/mistress were tripped up by texting hot messages to each other. Some agencies and private companies contract with outside companies to archive all such texts. They emerged as the result of a legal request.
A New York congressman made a critical mistake and sent an incriminating photo of himself to a group instead of an individual by assuming he knew how to work the buttons. Replying to an individual, like email, may instead reply to “all.” Know thy technology.
Try to avoid making unnecessary enemies or jealous observers. Tips often start as complaints to superiors, but from there the inevitable trail starts.
Try to avoid even casual contact with public or police agencies. Recall the Idaho Senator whose 2007 “tap dance” in a Minneapolis airport restroom led to the outing of his gay status. Police won’t protect you. If you pull out a cell phone, a paranoid officer may arrest you. It’s legal to record police activity. But it will create a file.
If you get picked up for drunken driving, think about whom you call to get bailed out. A rising Staten Island congressman’s career was derailed in 2008 after his first call went to his mistress. That act led to the discovery that he’d fathered a child with her — aside from his wife and three kids back home on Staten Island.
Understand the role of opposition research. Advanced teams of experts comb through your entire record for delicious morsels suitable for the National Enquirer. Hire your own opposition research team to probe yourself. Know your “liabilities” before your rivals do. A Pennsylvania congressman fell victim to an ancient (2004) police report that he’d choked someone. It forced him to admit a five-year affair.
Try not to fling money around. Funds create telltale tracks, witnesses, and records. Your trusted employees may not remain trusted forever, and payments to keep quiet or perform semi-phantom tasks may raise suspicions.
Politicians should avoid affairs. But they won’t. So at least try to keep it out of view. Gen. Petraeus started tongues wagging when Ms. Broadwell gushingly wrote a biography about him and did TV interviews about his style.
Study the detailed history of political dalliances that have ended in disgrace. Most politicians have enormous egos and are certain they will never get caught.
Assume that your secrets won’t remain hidden forever. Judgment Day will come. Sometimes there’s an accident. You could get dragged into a court case. You could become a suspect in an employee’s disappearance though you’re innocent.
Keep your family away from your campaign’s money. Two congressmen were turned out of office in the 2012 cycle because they used office funds to feather the nests of relatives. Sometimes it’s just a favor done, in which a congressman uses his influence to help more than just a “constituent.”
Try to understand that if in office, everyone’s a potential witness. A New York governor’s various trips to a chic prostitution service were bound to emerge. At least one loyal state trooper was always by his side.
An embarrassing disclosure may not end an otherwise promising career. The public is always going to want to hear your side. A Louisiana U.S. Senator was discovered in 2007 on the list of a prominent Washington house of fine repute. A reporter from New Orleans found an employee at the local brothel who reported that yes, the most esteemed Senator was frequently there, but a more upstanding gentleman could not be found across the state.
He was re-elected in 2010 and still sits in the U.S. Senate.
The writer (firstname.lastname@example.org ) is a founder of the Aspen Daily News and appears here Sundays.