The Smart Politician's Guide To Avoiding Scandal If you're a politician, you don't have to engage in any kind of wild or outlandish behavior to become the talk of the Internet and cable news. To spare politicians further embarrassment, we have prepared this list of do's and, mainly, don'ts.
NPR logo The Smart Politician's Guide To Avoiding Scandal

The Smart Politician's Guide To Avoiding Scandal

Politics may be show business for ugly people, but you don't have to be ugly about it yourself.

It's become a cliche to describe the endless series of Republican presidential debates as a reality show. But lately a lot of politicians have been acting as though they were looking to secure a spot on the "now trending" lists of Internet search engines.

Secretly donating sperm to lesbians in New Zealand? Seriously?

The truth is, if you're a politician, you don't have to engage in any kind of wild or outlandish behavior to become the talk of the Internet and cable news. People are already prepared to think the worst of you, so any minor indiscretion is likely to turn you into a laughingstock.

That's why you have to be careful. There are a lot of land mines and social pitfalls you have to avoid.

To spare politicians further embarrassment, we have prepared this list of do's and, mainly, don'ts. The downsides are simply too great.

Eight Golden Rules Of Political Etiquette

  • Don't make it clear you like your mistress more than your wife.

    Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford told his staff he was hiking the Appalachian trail, then later confessed he had rendezvoused with his Argentine mistress, whom he called "my soul mate." He stayed in office but his wife, Jenny, filed for divorce. Bruce Smith/AP hide caption

    toggle caption
    Bruce Smith/AP

    Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford told his staff he was hiking the Appalachian trail, then later confessed he had rendezvoused with his Argentine mistress, whom he called "my soul mate." He stayed in office but his wife, Jenny, filed for divorce.

    Bruce Smith/AP

    Maybe former House Speaker Newt Gingrich didn't ask his second wife for an "open marriage" so he could continue his affair with the woman who became his third wife. But Mark Sanford, then the governor of South Carolina, definitely did state that his Argentine mistress was his "soul mate." If you're caught having an affair or engaging in sexual harassment — and let's face it, you're a politician — say it was a youthful indiscretion; say, "I don't even know who this lady is"; even try the old tactic of begging your wife to stand next to you before the cameras. Just don't admit it was any fun.

  • As long as they're still processing film, use it for your dirty pictures.

    Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner resigned from Congress in June after tweeting lewd photos of himself. Jason DeCrow/AP hide caption

    toggle caption
    Jason DeCrow/AP

    Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner resigned from Congress in June after tweeting lewd photos of himself.

    Jason DeCrow/AP

    Digital photography can only get you into trouble. These aren't your father's dirty Polaroids, safely tucked under the bed. Naked pictures of yourself not only can but will spread far beyond your control. Remember "Shirtless" Chris Lee, the Craigslist congressman? But if somehow a picture you took of your own crotch becomes public, say "with certitude" that you took it yourself. Denial just makes you look bad.

  • When making a bet with your opponents, don't make the stakes higher than what they earn in a week.

    During a Dec. 10 debate in Iowa, Mitt Romney (right) bet $10,000 that Texas Gov. Rick Perry was wrong about what Romney had written concerning a national health care mandate. Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images hide caption

    toggle caption
    Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

    During a Dec. 10 debate in Iowa, Mitt Romney (right) bet $10,000 that Texas Gov. Rick Perry was wrong about what Romney had written concerning a national health care mandate.

    Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

    Ten thousand bucks may just be pocket change to you, but for a lot of the "little people," you're talking about real money. Even Gingrich had to come up with a week-and-a-half's worth of history lessons to earn that kind of dough from Freddie Mac.

  • If you're selling a U.S. Senate seat or anything really good, don't do it over the phone.

    Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was sentenced to 14 years in prison on corruption charges, including trying to sell or trade the Senate seat that became vacant when President Obama went to the White House. Scott Olson/Getty Images hide caption

    toggle caption
    Scott Olson/Getty Images

    Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was sentenced to 14 years in prison on corruption charges, including trying to sell or trade the Senate seat that became vacant when President Obama went to the White House.

    Scott Olson/Getty Images

    Didn't you watch The Wire? Or even The Sopranos? Those pesky feds might have tapped your phone. You can try claiming it was all just talk, but that only works with some juries and won't help you hold on to your job.

  • Once you are on trial for corruption charges, don't solicit bribes to pay your legal bills.

    New York Assemblyman William Boyland Jr. has pleaded not guilty to charges he allegedly solicited bribes from undercover FBI agents in an effort to pay his legal bills. He was acquitted of earlier corruption charges. David Karp/AP hide caption

    toggle caption
    David Karp/AP

    New York Assemblyman William Boyland Jr. has pleaded not guilty to charges he allegedly solicited bribes from undercover FBI agents in an effort to pay his legal bills. He was acquitted of earlier corruption charges.

    David Karp/AP

    It's the easy way to find free money. But this is what got you into trouble in the first place, remember? Do yourself a favor and raise funds by trying out for a real reality show (if they'll let you out of the country).

  • When trying to remember more than one thing, write it on your hand.

    When former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin addressed attendees at the National Tea Party Convention in Nashville, Tenn., on Feb. 6, 2010, she appeared to have notes written on her left hand. Ed Reinke/AP hide caption

    toggle caption
    Ed Reinke/AP

    When former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin addressed attendees at the National Tea Party Convention in Nashville, Tenn., on Feb. 6, 2010, she appeared to have notes written on her left hand.

    Ed Reinke/AP

    Yes, they made fun of Sarah Palin for it. The sad thing is, Texas Gov. Rick Perry was with her at that particular Tea Party rally. Think how much embarrassment he could have saved himself if he'd remembered that trick and simply jotted down "Commerce-Education-Energy."

  • Don't try to have sex in the men's room.

    Florida State Rep. Bob Allen resigned from office in late 2007 after being convicted of charges he offered to perform oral sex for $20 on an undercover male police officer in the men's room of a park. George Bortle/AP hide caption

    toggle caption
    George Bortle/AP

    Florida State Rep. Bob Allen resigned from office in late 2007 after being convicted of charges he offered to perform oral sex for $20 on an undercover male police officer in the men's room of a park.

    George Bortle/AP

    Don't believe the graffiti. This isn't the 1950s. There are plenty of other places where you can find anonymous hookups. The only people who will accept your advances in a men's room are cops. Just ask Larry Craig. Or this guy.

  • Don't stick your finger in the president's face.

    Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer points at President Obama after he arrived at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport on Wednesday. Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP hide caption

    toggle caption
    Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP

    Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer points at President Obama after he arrived at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport on Wednesday.

    Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP

    Just don't. No matter how many TV shows you go on to explain that he provoked you, you'll end up looking bad. Just don't. (Even if it does boost the Amazon ranking for your new book.)