When a political figure falls due to corruption, he's most likely finished. If he falls due to a sex scandal, he may be able to come back in time. But neither of those scenarios exactly fits what has happened so far in the case of David Petraeus, whose resignation as CIA director due to an extra-marital affair is a still-unfolding story.
The Petraeus scandal has engulfed two women (Paula Broadwell, his biographer, and Jill Kelley, a volunteer "social liaison" at MacDill Air Force Base near Tampa, Fla.), a number of emails and, as of Tuesday, four-star Gen. John Allen, who commands the war in Afghanistan.
There is no telling what will come out as the investigation proceeds.
"This is very different than a sex scandal engulfing a congressional politician. It doesn't fit into many of the other narratives we've seen," said Alison Dagnes, author of the book "Sex Scandals in American Politics."
Ms. Dagnes, who teaches U.S. government and politics at Shippensburg University and has a doctorate degree in political science from the University of Massachusetts, went on:
"David Petraeus was for a long time a nonpolitical military official beloved by the right, and appointed by the left to run the CIA. So there's not the usual partisan snarking. But director of the CIA is the most important intelligence office in the country. When he makes a mistake so glaringly obvious, it throws into question his ability to do his job. It certainly does not look good that he was so sloppy with his own intelligence."
Because of the classified secrets aspect of this case, it is not the garden-variety affair with which American politicians keep disgracing themselves, and that can be overcome under certain circumstances -- thanks to former President Bill Clinton.
"Clinton moved the bar quite a bit and made Americans sort of view political sex scandals in a different way," Ms. Dagnes said.
"Our social mores and attitudes about sex changed. And at the exact same time, technology exploded so we're more able to capture images of politicians and spread gossip and news far more quickly than ever before."
But even as some men land on their feet, the women in these scandals seem to devolve into a punch line and then obscurity. Monica Lewinsky's affair with Mr. Clinton is an example.
"The men were already famous for doing good before the scandal," Ms. Dagnes said. "That's why we know them. But the women are famous for doing bad.
"Most of them want to disappear. All the attention is negative, and it's not an attractive spotlight. They are framed as home wreckers, whores and evil, and they don't want that to keep happening."
Yet the news cycle that spins these stories so quickly also moves on quickly. A scandalized politician who waits out the uproar can rehabilitate himself if he does the right things.
If his wife stays with him, if he keeps quiet and lays low until enough time has passed, if he writes a serious book and then slowly tries the waters, Ms. Dagnes said, he may be able to come back.
"People are willing to forgive private sexual behavior unrelated to his work if his wife forgives him," she said. "If he says, 'I made a mistake and it's between me and my wife,' Americans can relate to that. We've all made mistakes."
Former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer is a case in point, she said. "His wife stayed and he didn't make a peep for a whole year. Then he wrote a very serious policy book, and then got the talking head job on CNN. Enough time had elapsed, and he rode it out."
But former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford -- now engaged to his Argentinian paramour -- will never be elected to public office again, Ms. Dagnes said.
"Jenny Sanford not only left him, she wrote a book. All any opponent has to do is quote what she wrote about him."
Former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger shouldn't have any trouble going back to Hollywood, Ms. Dagnes said, but he was finished in politics when his wife, Maria Shriver, left him.
As for former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, Ms. Dagnes said, he's twice as finished.
"His wife left him, and then she died. His mistress is so unseemly, with the photo spread and tell-all book, it's just blech. There's no way back for him in a billion years."
Also killing the chance for a comeback is any hint of corruption or abuse of power for personal gain, she said.
"That's the most damaging. Then it's not between the politician and his wife; it's between him and the public that elected him and pays him with their taxes. Voters have a harder time forgiving them for that."
As for Mr. Petraeus, she said, if the boom is not lowered and security wasn't breached, he may be able to salvage his image, if not his job.
"I think we've got a month of finding out more about this. It's going to get big and ugly, and because the media feeds on that it'll keep on going for a while. Sex is something people like to talk about."
Sally Kalson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1610. First Published November 14, 2012 5:00 AM