Less than five days from exposure to ouster. Not bad for a Washington sex scandal.
I refer, of course, to the impending resignation of Rep. David Wu. On Friday, the Oregon press reported that the 56-year-old Democratic congressman was alleged to have had “an unwanted sexual encounter” with the teenage daughter of an old friend last Thanksgiving. Even by the hormone-soaked political landscape of today, it was a disturbing charge, a breed apart from the often semicomic sexcapades to which we’ve grown accustomed of late.
We’re not talking here about some narcissistic goober tweeting pics of his junk to strange women. Neither are we confronting the usual got-busted-shtupping-a-staffer scenario—nor the more serious shtupped-a-staffer-then-broke-the-law-scurrying-to-cover-ass variation. This isn’t about a lawmaker’s cruising for same-sex action in a public bathroom or even sending dirty emails to House pages.
Granted, not all the facts are known yet. But the sexual encounter itself does not seem to be much in dispute. According to multiple sources, after the teen in question left a “distraught” voice mail at Wu’s office this spring, accusing him of “aggressive and unwanted sexual behavior,” the congressman admitted the sex part to aides, though he disputed the unwanted part.
Now, perhaps the encounter was wholly consensual. If so, since the young woman in question is apparently not a minor (her age has not been officially confirmed), Wu may well see himself as the victim in all this. Which could explain why, while the congressman promptly announced that he would not run for reelection this November, he initially rejected calls to resign.
Which means it once more fell to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to oh-so-gently kick one of her hyperlibidinous members to the curb.
This sort of thing is easier said than done. As Hill vets noted, publicly calling for Wu’s resignation could have set a ticklish precedent for Pelosi, opening the door for questions going forward about which scandals might or might not merit similar intervention. Complicating this case, there has been much speculation regarding Wu’s overall mental health. The congressman has been in therapy for several months following some unfortunate outbursts on the campaign trail last year, coupled with a rather puzzling picture he emailed to staffers of himself dressed in a plush orange tiger suit. Dealing with a member already under tremendous strain requires its own kind of delicacy. Thus, requesting an ethics investigation, which Pelosi’s office did lickety-split was as harsh as the Minority Leader was going to get in public.
In private, however, it was another story. As she did with Anthony Weiner, Pelosi needed to push behind the scenes, and push hard. That is what she does. She has to, for the sake of the party’s rep and her own.
What was at risk here wasn’t simply Wu’s seat come November. On one level, it was more personal. These are fraught times for Democrats in general and Pelosi in particular, for reasons having nothing to do with sex. Already this year there has been media chatter about how the minority leader has faded as a power player. A failure to remove Wu would have reflected poorly on Pelosi’s internal clout and general reputation as the scariest woman in politics. (And by that I mean a fearsome, cross-her-and-you’re-dead scary, not an unhinged, possibly mentally unbalanced scary.)
On a grander scale, the era of party leaders downplaying members’ sexual misbehavior is over. “There has been this evolving standard where we’ve moved from Congress using the ethics process to delay and obfuscate to give a member time to survive to now making a pretty quick call on whether to sever ties or not,” observes Democratic consultant Chris Lehane, a crisis- communications specialist.
Much of this, says Lehane, is a function of scandal coverage sucking the oxygen out of the political conversation. “These scandals no longer are limited to the member. It ends up impacting the broader caucus whether on its agenda, its brand, or its ability to occupy media real estate,” he says. “Now the whole caucus has to deal with it, and that impacts the tolerance level.”
If anything, with lawmakers getting caught willy-nilly with their willies out these days, a contest seems to have emerged between the leadership teams as to who is the quickest and toughest in doling out punishment.
This development partly has its roots in the painful blowback suffered by Speaker Denny Hastert, who failed to heed early warnings about Rep. Mark Foley’s X-rated messaging of male House pages. The drubbing Hastert took when the scandal finally broke in 2006 made quite an impression on many in the conference, including the soon-to-be Republican leader, John Boehner.
It was Boehner, in fact, who put down a marker on this issue early on. Shortly after assuming the post of minority leader in 2007, Boehner informed his conference there would be a zero-tolerance policy on sex scandals, says Ron Bonjean, a former GOP leadership aide. “He said, ‘If any of you are acting improperly, you can resign now or, if you get caught, we’re going to ask you to resign then.’”
Talk is cheaper than cheap in politics, but Boehner has proved himself willing to be a hardass. In May 2010, he showed Indiana Rep. Mark Souder the door within a week of Souder’s admitting to an affair with a married staffer. “He read him the riot act,” recalls Bonjean.
This past February, Boehner seriously upped the ante with his handling of the Chris Lee debacle (ironically, the most milquetoast sex scandal in recent memory). Just hours after Lee’s shirtless pic and Craigslist flirtation with a Maryland single mom hit the Internet, the New York congressman was history. Word on the Hill was that there were more exotic skeletons in Lee’s closet—later reports suggested Lee had a history of trolling for transgender gals—but, regardless, the actions by the GOP leadership were swift and decisive.
Bonjean says the particulars weren’t something that concerned Boehner: “He removed really the question of the level of detail regarding improprieties” that would require action. If you get busted, says Bonjean, “it’s just time to go.”
Boehner’s lightning-fast dispatch of Lee set a new gold standard of sorts that his party has been happy to tout. When Weiner’s tweeting hobby came to light, Dems were almost immediately criticized for taking too long to dispense discipline. All told, it took three weeks from Weiner’s exposure to his announcing that he would resign—pretty fast by Washington standards. During that period, however, Republicans took to the airwaves to denounce the Democrats for failing to act as quickly as their leader had with Lee.
(You know the hormonal situation is out of hand when the parties no longer bother to pretend their members are above such naughtiness and shift to boasting about who does the best damage control. It’s refreshing, when you think about it.)
Admittedly, Weinergate came with a set of fun photos to titter over. But the Wu Wang Scandal, in addition to soundly vaguely like a '90s rap group, has the potential to be vastly ickier, if not legally actionable.
And you could almost hear a sigh of relief in Pelosi's statement this afternoon on Wu’s resignation: “Congressman Wu’s decision today is a recognition of his need to focus on his children and their future. The timing of his decision is in the best interests of his constituents. My prayers are with him and his family."
There was no way Pelosi could let this one slide—especially if it meant allowing Boehner to look tougher than she is when it comes to tolerating male sleaziness.