“All the past we leave behind.” So insisted America’s poet, Walt Whitman, a man who would not be encompassed by any one identity — who refused to be constrained by birth, by place, by experience.
Americans, following Whitman, have long celebrated their nation as a redemptive land, a place where the past leaves few traces, where people possess almost infinite capacity to rewrite their own stories and restart their lives.
The nation’s politicians have long enjoyed the license to reinvent themselves that Whitman celebrated. From President William Henry Harrison, the Virginia aristocrat who recast himself as the “poor farmer of North Bend” summoned from his log cabin, to President George W. Bush, the Yale and Andover-trained preppie turned Texas oilman, they have fabricated entirely new identities. Even more remarkable, politicians ousted from office for a wide range of lies, scandals and even crimes have won re-election, sometimes from the very same voters that previously dismissed them.
Consider Mark Sanford, the disgraced South Carolina governor who recently won re-election to Congress after being driven from office when a “walk along the Appalachian Trail” turned out to be a not-very-good cover story for an affair with his Argentine mistress. Former Representative Anthony Weiner, who is now running for mayor of New York, has become the latest in a long line of disgraced officials seeking not only absolution, but political resurrection.
It is an ancient and familiar feature of American politics: Voters have been willing to re-elect their fallen leaders, whether they found them in the arms of a stripper, the pocket of corrupt supporters or even behind the bars of a penitentiary.