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Political Redemption Narratives

August 21, 2013

It has been a year of political redemption in the United States, as multiple politicians who left office amid scandal returned to the political arena.  Mark Sanford, who resigned as South Carolina’s governor after an extramarital affair, was elected to the House of Representatives in a special election.  Eliot Spitzer, the former governor of New York who was revealed to have solicited prostitutes, is making a bid for New York City comptroller.  And while Anthony Weiner’s campaign for New York City mayor has fallen flat on its face, the fact that he was ever a serious candidate suggests that political redemption is very possible in modern America.

But how does someone who was previously disgraced make a comeback?  A politician is in the public eye, so shouldn’t his past be an albatross around his neck?  Maybe not.  Perhaps all that’s needed is the right narrative: do things you regret, apologize, change your behavior, earn the public trust, get rewarded with public office.

Sanford, Spitzer, and Weiner attempted to revive their careers through this narrative structure, making the most of a bad situation.  But I’ve been thinking: is this a sound strategy?  To answer that question, let’s look at an example from pop culture.  After all, what better way to explore narrative than through television?

About a week ago, I finished watching the first season of Netflix’s House of Cards.  In the show, House Majority Whip Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) seeks greater influence in the president’s administration, and uses a congressman from Pennsylvania named Peter Russo (Corey Stoll) to further his ends.  While Russo is content to represent Philadelphia’s working class constituents, Underwood wants him to run as the Democratic nominee in Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial race.

Underwood knows full well about Russo’s baggage: he snorts cocaine, solicits prostitutes, and was arrested for drunk driving.  It would seem the best strategy is to keep Russo’s past buried at all costs.  Underwood has a different plan, though.  He has Russo cast his campaign as “a fresh start”.  He has sobered up, taken control of his life, and is ready to lead the Keystone State into the future.  But why risk alienating voters by bringing it up?

(Side note: Okay, Underwood actually wants Peter to self-destruct, but Underwood’s motivations are never clear, and even so, this particular narrative wasn’t necessary for his plan to succeed).

There may be some merit in making Russo’s new-found sobriety a feature of the campaign.  Watching this arc in House of Cards brought to mind a passage from Hardball – How Politics Is Played, Told by One Who Knows the Game by Chris Matthews.  The chapter is called “Hang a Lantern on Your Problem”, and it perfectly encapsulates the Underwood-Russo strategy:

Retail or wholesale, the one durable truth holds: when in doubt, get it out.  If you’ve done something your boss is not going to like, it is far better that you yourself bring him the bad news.  It gives him a perfect opportunity to vent steam.  It shows that you are not trying to put one past him.  Most important, it protects him from being surprised and embarrassed by hearing it from someone outside. (159)

Playing the former-addict card allows Russo’s team to frame his problems in a positive light.  Just like Russo has rescued himself from destructive behavior, as governor he will pull Pennsylvania from economic hardship into a brighter future.  In addition, putting Russo’s past out in the open neutralizes a possible GOP attack.  After all, Pennsylvania is a critical state for both parties, and they’ll be pulling all the stops.

So making Russo’s past a feature of the campaign is a justifiable decision.  But why pick Russo in the first place?  (I mean, besides the fact it benefits Underwood.)  Why not pick someone without baggage so this whole lantern-hanging problem is unnecessary?

One could argue, that Russo’s baggage not only can be cast as a virtue, but that it is a virtue.  Consider this speech from Prince Hal in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1.  Hal, the king’s carousing son, plans to change his ways later in life for political gain:

So, when this loose behavior I throw off

And pay the debt I never promised,

By how much better than my word I am,

By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;

And, like bright metal on a sullen ground,

My reformation, glitt’ring o’er my fault,

Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes

Than that which hath no foil to set it off. (1.2.201-210)

In other words, Hal will look better after his reformation than he would have were he always a respectable prince.  It’s all about contrast: the person I was vs. the person I am now.  The latter will look even better when juxtaposed with the former.  It works pretty well for Prince Hal, as by Henry V he shows himself to be a capable leader of England.

If both Chris Matthews and William Shakespeare attest to the power of the redemption narrative, then there must be something to it.  After all, it got Mark Sanford into Congress despite the whole “hiking the Appalachian trail” thing, and Eliot Spitzer leads his closest primary opponent by 19 percentage points in the latest Quinnipiac poll.  I know I’d have written off their careers as dead just a few years ago.

But then there’s Anthony Weiner, and his whole saga reflects House of Cards‘ take on the matter.  Weiner resigned from the House amid a sexting scandal, but about two years later he looked poised for a comeback in the mayoral race.  For a short time, he led the polls for the Democratic primary, even if it was by mere name recognition.  That is, of course, until a second sexting scandal broke, killing his momentum.

Peter Russo meets a similar fate on House of Cards.  After succumbing to his vices and giving an interview to a Pittsburgh radio station while intoxicated, his poll numbers plummet and his gubernatorial hopes are dashed.  All it took was one little slip, and Russo’s redemption narrative comes to a tragic end

Here’s the problem with the political redemption narrative: it requires actual redemption.  Or, at least, the appearance of it.

I don’t know if Sanford and Spitzer are actually changed men, but at least they look the part.  But Weiner and Russo don’t.  They publicly failed at their biggest task: staying out of trouble.  These are people with self-control issues, so it may not be surprising that they erred.  But it still leaves them looking like hypocrites and liars.  And in a media-driven culture, perhaps Sanford and Spitzer will be submerged in scandal again.

A political redemption is possible, no doubt, but given the difficulty in sticking to the narrative, I’d say 2013’s wave of second-chance politicians is an anomaly.  The political redemption narrative requires a flawless performance, and with our human foibles, it’s an unreliable strategy.

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From → Film & TV, Politics

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