In the New Yorker of 8/26/13, a letter on p. 5 from Richard M. Perloff, Professor of Communication at Cleveland State University, Cleveland OH, beginning:

Dangerous Liaisons
Hendrik Hertzberg, writing about Anthony Weiner, Eliot Spitzer, and their forerunners in the delicate pas de deux between private misdeeds and public behavior, assumes that sex scandals have an objective quality (Comment, August 12th and 19th). Whether a series of transgressions merits the label “scandal” is itself a contentious issue that is a function of social norms and cultural values.

Perloff goes on to discuss some specific cases, and I’ll get to these. But first some lexicographic notes.

From NOAD2 on scandal:

an action or event regarded as morally or legally wrong and causing general public outrage: a bribery scandal involving one of his key supporters.
• the outrage or anger caused by such an action or event: divorce was cause for scandal on the island.
• rumor or malicious gossip about such events or actions: I know that you would want no scandal attached to her name.
• [in sing.] a state of affairs regarded as wrong or reprehensible and causing general public outrage or anger: it’s a scandal that many older patients are dismissed as untreatable.
ORIGIN Middle English (in the sense discredit to religion (by the reprehensible behavior of a religious person)’): from Old French scandale, from ecclesiastical Latin scandalum ‘cause of offense,’ from Greek skandalon ‘snare, stumbling block.’

The primary definition makes it clear that there are three components to a scandal:

(1) an action or event;

(2) participants held responsible for the action or event; and

(3) an audience that judges the action or event to be wrong and also to be outrageous.

Perloff’s letter brings out the significance of the third component: the social and cultural context.

The rest of his letter:

John F. Kennedy’s sexual escapades were not defined as scandals, both because they did not contravene journalists’ definition of accepted male political behavior and because they were not deemed relevant for public discussion. Italy’s former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi engaged in reckless acts that would have been regarded as scandalous in the United States, but were tolerated for the most part with a scandal-free shrug by Italians. And Weiner’s vainglorious sexting and seemingly disreputable denials are not viewed as scandalous by all New Yorkers. As the Times recently reported, New York City’s black voters are more forgiving of Weiner’s and Spitzer’s transgressions than whites. The very act of labelling an action or defining it in a particular way is complex and freighted with meaning.

Each case has its own features: harassment in the case of Weiner and also Bob Filner; abuse of a position of power, in the case of Filner and Bill Clinton; illegal acts, in the case of Spitzer (both prostitution and soliciting prostitution being illegal in New York, and adultery still, technically, being a crime there as well); and “cheating” on a partner — cheating being a tricky concept in this context, very much bound to social and cultural norms — in several of these cases .

The involvement of laws in these judgments complicates public discussion of many cases, Spitzer’s in particular; some people will maintain that Spitzer’s offense is more egregious than Weiner’s or Filner’s because Spitzer broke the law. Two complexities immediately arise: first, what’s legal or not is a determination by human beings, and differs from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and changes over time (I often point out that for years almost all the sex I had with other men was against the law, and now it’s not); and, second, everyone judges certain infractions of the law to be minor and others to be weighty. Prostitution and solicitation of prostitution lie on different points of this scale for different people.

It does seem to me that the escalation of various kinds of misdeeds to the rank of scandal is now rampant, possibly assisted by the easy availability of the libfix -gate (discussion on this blog, with links, here). Yes, we now have Spitzergate, Weinergate, and Filnergate.

And, earlier, we had the puzzle of Nannygate. From Wikipedia:

“Nannygate” is a popular term for the 1993 revelations that caused two of President Bill Clinton’s choices for United States Attorney General to become derailed.

In January 1993, Clinton’s nomination of corporate lawyer Zoë Baird for the position came under attack after it became known that she and her husband had broken the law by employing two illegal aliens from Peru as a nanny and chauffeur for their young child. They had also failed to pay Social Security taxes for the workers until shortly before the disclosures. While the Clinton administration thought the matter was relatively unimportant, the news elicited a firestorm of public opinion, most of it against Baird. Within eight days, her nomination lost political support in the U.S. Congress and was withdrawn.

The following month, Clinton’s choice of federal judge Kimba Wood for the job was leaked to the press, but within a day it became known that she too had employed an illegal alien to look after her child. Although Wood had done so at a time when this was legal, and had paid Social Security taxes for the worker, the disclosures were enough to cause the immediate withdrawal of Wood from consideration.

What was astonishing at the time was how quickly these events blew up into major scandals. From private misdeed (though in fact in Baird’s case her status as a nominee for public office was complicatedly relevant) to public outrage in a short amount of time.

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