Of the 432 members today serving in the House of Representatives, he is 429th in seniority, having won a special election barely five months ago. But by now, Rep. Vance McAllister, R-La., is known to tabloid readers everywhere as the “Kissing Congressman” after someone, apparently a staff member, leaked a surveillance video of the married McAllister in his Monroe, La., district office on Dec. 23 amorously kissing a woman congressional employee who is also married.
The Republican governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, who has a reputation for being smart, self-inflicted some serious damage on that reputation by calling for McAllister’s resignation from the House because he is “an embarrassment.”
You may remember that Louisiana is represented in the Senate by Republican David Vitter who, with his hurting wife next to him, publicly confessed his “very serious sin,” telling the world he had asked for “forgiveness from God and my wife” after his phone number turned up several times in the phone records of the Madame running a Washington prostitution ring. Obviously more “embarrassed” by a 30-second video replay of one illicit kiss than by repeated illegal connections with prostitutes, Jindal has continued to enthusiastically endorse Vitter.
This reminds me of the Senate’s four-year refusal to seat Republican Reed Smoot, a Mormon leader who was elected in 1902. In spite of the fact the Mormon church had renounced all future plural marriages in 1890, Protestant groups were adamantly opposing a Mormon in the Senate, even though Smoot was happily married to just one wife. Smoot was finally accepted after Sen. Boies Penrose, R-Pa., argued: “I would rather have seated beside me in this chamber a polygamist who doesn’t ‘polyg’ than a monogamist who doesn’t ‘monog.’”
Personal political scandals almost always follow the same script. The penitent wrongdoer is diagnosed with some previously unnoticed medical condition and, almost miraculously, undergoes a profound religious experience. This is one reason why I so personally value the late and irrepressibly colorful and able Rep. Charlie Wilson., D-Texas. When it became public that the Justice Department was investigating the use of drugs on Capitol Hill, Wilson denied he had ever used cocaine and then added that whatever happened, “I won’t blame booze, and I won’t suddenly find Jesus.”
When it comes to public penance for personal wrongdoing, no politician has ever rivaled the genuine character of John Profumo, the British secretary of war who consciously lied to the House of Commons by testifying that there had been no impropriety in his relations with a woman named Christine Keeler. The problem was not just that the married Profumo had been sleeping for two years with Keeler, but that Keeler, at the height of the Cold War, was simultaneously sleeping with the Soviet naval attaché in London. The scandal ended Profumo’s then-promising career and helped to bring down Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government.
The next 40 years were one long act of personal contrition. The well-born Profumo worked with and for the poor. For four decades at Toynbee Hall, a refuge for the disadvantaged in East London, he was out of public sight. He washed dishes. He cleaned and scrubbed toilets. He helped feed the hungry. He visited prisoners in jail. He raised money to train youth. He used his remaining connections in Parliament to win greater support for housing and schools. And he never once, in all that time, had a news conference or a “media team” to tell us the good he had done or how much he had changed.
That, dear readers, is called character.
— Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.