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The Shirtless Congressman

A Commentary by Susan Estrich

Friday, February 11, 2011

At one level, it's astoundingly funny: a congressman telling a woman with whom he is flirting that the only picture he has of himself is shirtless. If there is one thing every congressman has, it is pictures of himself in a shirt. Often, stuffed.

So Rep. Chris Lee, a.k.a. the Shirtless Congressman, the married Republican flirt from upstate New York who resigned after the flirtee went public, was definitely stupid.

In addition to lying about his photo collection, he lied about his age (minus seven), his marital status (he claimed divorced) and his occupation (perhaps only in Washington would "lobbyist" be considered an attractive choice). He did all this in a series of flirtatious e-mails with a 34-year-old woman who placed a "woman looking for man" ad on Craigslist.

Compared to what some of my friends found when they placed similar ads or otherwise jumped into computer dating, I'd say she did rather well. I bet he even told the truth about his height. His real stupidity came in linking to his Facebook account and using his real name. In short, he lied, but not enough.

If it sounds like I'm making light of this, the truth is that I am. Mrs. Lee may not take well to it -- caring for a 2-year-old while her husband acts like a teenager -- but that, in my book, is very much between the two of them. Last time I checked, there were no laws against any of the things Lee did. No one was underage. She was advertising; he responded. They never actually did anything. The picture wasn't even pornographic. He made an avatar of himself. The avatar Chris Lee flirted. He clearly wanted to be found attractive. Again, between husband and wife.

Hard as I might struggle to get on a high horse about Republican hypocrisy on matters of morality, I can't find the resignable offense here.

And yet I understand exactly why he immediately resigned. He was about to be eaten alive. Between understanding what's going on in Egypt and talking congressional sex, which do you think plays best on drive-time? Or cable? Or the tabloids? Or celebrity sites? Or opposition blogs? Etcetera.

It's not that any of those people actually think sending a shirtless picture is a high crime or misdemeanor or a betrayal of public trust, much less -- horrors -- grounds for losing their jobs. It's just that on Day 19, what could be a more welcome relief from the intractable problems of the world than making a flirtatious congressman the "turkey" of the day? By moving quickly and saying nothing, there is a chance he'll avoid an extended roasting.

The troubling part, from what I've read, is that Lee was actually a very good congressman, deeply involved in helping the families of the victims in an air crash in his own town, respected in the community, even "loved," according to press reports, which is saying a lot for a member of Congress these days. His career in public service is over not because he did anything that makes him unfit to serve. It's over because of the way the media writ large (I mean all of us) turn private mistakes into public firestorms far more threatening than the mistakes themselves.

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