city's mayor, riding a wave of unprecedented popularity, suddenly was
hit with one of the oldest indiscretions in politics. His long marriage
was in trouble. Worse, the faithful wife had filed for divorce. Worse
still, there was another woman.
For the man once regarded as a front-runner to succeed the
incumbent governor and possibly even reach a national office, the
future was in crisis-control mode.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa?
quite. The man in trouble was then-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, now
the front-runner among Republican presidential candidates - showing
there can be political success even after divorce, infidelity and
"Giuliani broke the mold," said national political watcher
Steve Benen, who writes for Washington Monthly magazine. "Giuliani
marched in a St. Patrick's Day parade with his mistress and then
announced that he was getting a divorce in a press conference - before
his wife knew anything about it."
That candidates have been able to overcome the stigma of
infidelity should encourage Villaraigosa backers and give pause to
naysayers who suggest that Villaraigosa's marital breakup - and
subsequent admission that he is seeing another woman - could
dim his rising political star.
a new ballgame," said L.A. political consultant Joe Cerrell. "All you
have to do is look at Giuliani, and he's not alone."
The other woman
admission this week that he had a "relationship" with television
newswoman Mirthala Salinas, rumors were rampant about who the other
woman might be. But experts say that while that kind of chatter can
shock and titillate, it might not have a lasting impact on
In a hotly contested presidential race, three Republicans -
Giuliani, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and actor and former Sen. Fred
Thompson of Tennessee - all have publicly weathered divorces. In the
cases of McCain and Giuliani, they've also weathered extramarital
In 1979, McCain began courting a 25-year-old former
cheerleader while still married and living with his wife, who had
raised their three children while he was a POW in Vietnam, according to
published reports. McCain divorced his wife, married the ex-cheerleader
months later, then launched his political career with his new wife's
About the same time, Ronald Reagan proved that Americans
were willing to elect a divorced man as president. He had been married
to actress Jane Wyman before his marriage to Nancy.
And former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, another GOP candidate, has been divorced twice amid scandalous circumstances.
to his first wife, who had helped put him through graduate school, he
forced her to discuss divorce terms while she was recovering from
cancer surgery. Gingrich's second divorce in 2000 came after an
acknowledged affair with the woman who became his current wife.
Still, it remains to be seen whether Villaraigosa will face
more political backlash as people dig deeper into his personal life in
search of other indiscretions, said Jaime Regalado, executive director
of the Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California
State University, Los Angeles.
"It's bad enough for some people to acknowledge he's been
having an affair over a period of months. If it's limited to that and
between elections, he's still going to be in pretty good shape unless
the lid that's open finds a certain pattern of promiscuity since he's
been in the Mayor's Office," Regalado said.
Michael Beschloss said the press typically has kept stories of
political peccadillos under wraps because a "tacit assumption was that
the American people were not grown-up enough to assimilate that kind of
But, Beschloss said, the Watergate scandal spotlighted
political corruption and illustrated the importance of character and
integrity: "If candidates can't bear up under full disclosure, they
have no business being in politics." Beschloss and others point to the
1990s and the extramarital troubles of President Clinton as the time
when the political climate began changing to include a higher tolerance
among voters for marital indiscretions.
"It wasn't until 2000 that McCain, possibly emboldened by
Clinton's survival of his scandals, became the first confessed
adulterer to have the nerve to run," said Steve Benen, a freelance
writer and researcher and creator of TheCarpetbaggerReport.com. "Now,
just a few years after infidelity was considered a deal-breaker for a
presidential candidate, the party that presents itself as the arbiter
of virtue may field an unprecedented two-timing trifecta."
Tolerance for divorce
Experts say it
all bodes well for politicians, especially rising darlings like
Villaraigosa and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who has also been
mentioned as a future gubernatorial contender.
Earlier this year, while going through a divorce from his
wife, TV commentator Kimberly Guilfoyle, Newsom admitted to having an
affair with the wife of his re-election campaign manager.
It also speaks to a curious phenomenon among voters - that
they will tolerate in their political leaders what they would not in
After all, Villaraigosa has admitted infidelity in the
past, an affair that prompted Corina Villaraigosa to file for divorce
"People have a certain image of a political leader and, if
that image is strong enough, it can't be shaken," said Steven Mintz,
co-chairman of the Council On Contemporary Families, a nonprofit
research think tank based at the University of Houston. "The image
people have of Giuliani is that of a strong leader, and it's helped him
Mintz said he also believes the country has gone through what he calls "morality fatigue."
something like this occurred the first time, society was disapproving,"
he said. "But then there's a second time and a third and so on, and
society gets accustomed.
"When Nelson Rockefeller ran for president (in 1964), his
divorce destroyed his campaign. But by 1976, people were accustomed to
politicians who had been divorced, and Ronald Reagan was able to make a
serious run at the (Republican) nomination. By 1980, he could get
elected without divorce being an issue."
In fact, only a small minority of voters - mostly
evangelicals and political conservatives - care about candidates'
According to a study by the Pew Research Center for the
People and the Press, 62 percent of Republican respondents, but only 25
percent of Democrats, said they would be less likely to support a
candidate who had an extramarital affair.
"Americans understand that political marriages are
complicated, that they're not exactly like every other marriage or
romance under the sun," Mintz said.
Mintz also draws a distinction between Villaraigosa's
marital breakup and affair with the political demise of one-time
Democratic darling Henry Cisneros, the former mayor of San Antonio and
Clinton administration Cabinet member.
"Cisneros was haunted by an affair that ruined his
political career," Mintz said. "But what made his situation different
was the financial shenanigans that showed this to be more than a sexual
Cisneros, according to reports and court documents, reached
a secret agreement to buy his mistress' silence, then lied about it to
the FBI during his Cabinet appointment vetting. It was a felony that
led to his forced resignation and plea bargain.
For his part, Villaraigosa has made all the right
crisis-control moves, experts agree. Even his much-criticized press
conference last month, when he refused to address questions about the
breakup, served its purpose - to publicly accept blame for the failure
of the marriage.
"I know it may seem like the end of the world for
Villaraigosa right now," Benen said, "but in the overall scheme of
things, history is on his side."