Let us begin by acknowledging that a man trolling for dates online—or anywhere, really—who touts himself as “a fit fun classy guy” is almost certainly not. Fun and fit, maybe. But “classy” is pretty much a self-negating term, especially under the circumstances.
And whatever one’s political leanings, most of us can agree that a married congressman emailing a shirtless photo of himself to a woman to whom he has never spoken, but with whom he nonetheless hopes to get busy, is, by definition, too stupid to hold high public office. It doesn’t matter if he is No. 435 on the list of House members in line for the presidency in the event some catastrophe wipes out the rest of the government. The risk is still too great. The fool must go.
And go Christopher Lee did, at a speed that startled even a jaded political press corps. By Wednesday evening, the second-term Republican had sent a letter to House Speaker John Boehner expressing his regrets and tendering his resignation after Gawker’s lunchtime posting of his shirtless self-portrait.
By now, we have become accustomed to the scandal cycle in which a story originates in the tabloids or blogosphere before making its way into more traditional outlets and eventually devouring the entire landscape. In this case, however, Lee was swept from the stage by the gossip gurus at Gawker before the MSM could clear its throat. “Literally, by the time we had briefed the reporters and they were just starting to bang the phones, it was over,” says David Perel, managing editor of Radar Online and the former National Enquirer chief who spearheaded the John Edwards-Rielle Hunter story.
As breathtakingly compressed as the timeline from Lee’s exposure to his resignation may have been, however, it doesn’t represent the real breakthrough on display here. Rather, through the magic of social networking and alternative media, we have just witnessed what may be the first ever public official driven from office because of his intention to cheat on his wife.
Sure, the Gawker pic was embarrassing. I mean, what sort of middle-aged man snaps himself in the mirror with his BlackBerry, flexing his pecs and clad only in dress pants? Still, the photo was hardly scandalous—more tragic than racy, and certainly nowhere near the level of sleaze to which we’ve grown accustomed in this age of profligate sexting. If Brett Favre or Tiger Woods noticed the tale of Lee’s instant downfall, the response was presumably, “You quit over that, bro?”
Likewise, the New York congressman’s mildly cheesy email exchange with Yesha Callahan, the 34-year-old single mom whose personal ad he’d stumbled across while cruising the “Women Seeking Men” forum on Craigslist, barely merits a PG rating. While he comes across as a preening dork (“I promise not to disappoint,” he says of his own hotness), his missives contain no dirty talk or even innuendo. Yes, he lies about his age, job, and marital status. (Gawker had received both the pic and the emails from Callahan, after she discovered that the 46-year-old married congressman was not the 39-year-old divorced lobbyist he’d claimed to be.) But this is the sort of deceit that married men have served up to strange women for generations, whether their intention was to launch a torrid affair or simply to flirt away a couple hours at a crowded cocktail party. Lee certainly seemed to be laying the groundwork for something, but, technically speaking, he barely made it past the “Come here often?” stage.
The problem for Lee—and doubtless many, many less-prominent nookie-trawlers—is that these days, awkward come-ons aren’t just delivered in dimly lit bars or the quiet corners of parties. More and more, they are transmitted digitally. And while this can provide a certain anonymity in the early going, it also means that every word—or goofy muscle photo—is captured in a form that can be shared with the world faster than you can say “Thirty-nine-year-old divorced lobbyist, my ass!” Observes Perel: “The speed of the Internet has caused the speed of scandals to rev into high gear.” So what in the name of Facebook—on which Lee promptly deleted his profile when reporters came a callin’—was he thinking?
“That’s what amazes me most about this,” says Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University. Yes, the media landscape has been transformed, he says, “but it’s not like this stuff is still brand spanking new. This isn’t 2002.” At this point, asserts Thompson, pretty much everyone in public life should have figured out how to manage “the third law of entertainment dynamics”: If you email or post something, sooner or later it’s going to become public.
Clearly, Lee was so blinded by the promise of anonymity (and sex) that he forgot about the rest—including the awesome, instantaneous research power the Web imparts. The moral of this story for aspiring congressional cheats is that if you’re going to lie to a prospective hookup about your marital status and profession, you’d best not use your real name or any related hard-data points—lest her five-second online probe reveals that you are in fact a dishonest dirtbag with a wife, a young child, and a profile high enough to guarantee media hyperventilation at the slightest whiff of impropriety. Seriously. Make up a name. Use the guy’s from the district next to yours. Or better still, skip email altogether and stick with the dimly lit bars.
The widespread assumption is that there’s more to Lee’s story than we yet know. (Isn’t there always?) Some Hill Republicans express concern that this was not his first extramarital fishing expedition. Making matters worse, the morning after Lee’s resignation, Politico reported that he had been among a group of young GOP members scolded by Boehner last year for partying too fervently with female lobbyists. So it’s entirely possible that the congressman’s rush for the door was an attempt to derail this scandal before other semi-clad skeletons were dragged from his closet. Or perhaps, as some on the Hill imply, Republican leaders gave Lee a gentle shove out the door in the hopes of making him vastly less fascinating to the hordes of reporters looking to advance the story.
Regardless, the event that precipitated Lee’s fall from grace may rank as the feeblest sex scandal ever to hit Washington. The congressman’s sin may not have been merely that he had lust in his heart, a la Jimmy Carter, but he didn’t get a heckuva lot further than that. The new media culture didn’t allow it. “One bit of good news in all this,” offers Thompson, “is that it’s getting harder and harder to get away with things you shouldn’t be doing.”
What an irony that the sex-soaked Web has become the means by which a politician can be brought down by a sex scandal before he even comes close to having sex.
Michelle Cottle is a Washington reporter for The Daily Beast.