One of the More Probable Ideas on ABC's 'Scandal': Politically Surviving a Sex Scandal

Elahe Izadi
National Journal

Even big fans of the Washington-based television show Scandal recognize that some of the plotlines are, well, a bit far-fetched. But politically savvy viewers know the next story line, at least on its face, isn’t: seeking post-sex-scandal political redemption.

(Warning: spoilers ahead).

By the end of Thursday’s episode in the series about “fixer” Olivia Pope, Republican President Fitzgerald Grant decides to seek reelection despite the fact that the nation has learned he had an affair. The first lady announced that her husband had been “unfaithful” during a television interview.

Before Grant made his final decision, it was accepted gospel that his affair going public would mean the end of his political career. But recent news instructs us differently: The public has increasingly grown tolerant of extramarital entanglements.

Other story lines in Scandal—that President Grant's team rigged his election and that Pope employs a trained killer—make his extramarital affair much more complex than what real-life politicians caught up in sex scandals have had to overcome. 

"Less far-fetched is [a] relative term," Republican consultant and Scandal fan Ana Navarro writes in an e-mail. "We're talking a Republican president, with a media-savvy wife with high approval ratings, and a newborn baby. And he's having an affair [with] a woman who helped him steal the election and worked in his White House."

On Scandal, most of the complicating matters are still not public knowledge. "Like all crisis communications, it involves you getting out the facts and stopping the drip, drip, drip," Democratic strategist and Scandal fan Donna Brazile writes in an e-mail.

Just the idea, however, of surviving a sex scandal has become more probable in recent years. The most recent case in point is former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford. His affair with an Argentinian woman appeared to completely undo any of his political prospects. Then voters in the heavily conservative 1st District of South Carolina resoundingly overlooked his very public—and poorly handled—misdeeds by electing him rather than a union-backed Democrat to Congress.

"I don't think Sanford winning means voters forgot about what he did. I think it means they care about politics more than personal indiscretions,” former South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Katon Dawson told my colleague Beth Reinhard this week.

It remains to be seen if former Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner could likewise make a comeback, as he considers a bid for mayor of New York. But others have recently survived similar misdeeds. Take Republican Sen. David Vitter. In 2007, he was caught up in the D.C. madame scandal and quickly admitted to sleeping with a prostitute. He asked for forgiveness and was relentless in talking about what he was doing for Louisiana. He easily won reelection in 2010 and today it’s as if the scandal never happened at all.

Then of course, there’s President Clinton. In Thursday’s episode of Scandal, Grant’s chief of staff encourages him to seek reelection by noting Clinton survived the Monica Lewinsky affair (ironically, Scandal and Pope's character is loosely based on crisis-management guru Judy Smith, who counted Lewinsky as a client). Grant notes that, unlike Clinton, he loves the woman with whom he’s had an affair. The implication is that the public will forgive a momentary lapse rather than an emotional betrayal of one's wife.

Once again, we can turn to Sanford; he loved his mistress and plans to marry her. And more broadly, the politics around Sanford’s and Vitter’s policy stances trumped their personal lives as far as voters were concerned. So long as other damning skeletons in the closet don't come out, will voters on Scandal feel the same about Grant? If not, perhaps reality is stranger than fiction.

This story has been updated to add a comment from Brazile.