Chris Lee's Speedy Exit Differs from Previous Sex Scandals - But Will It Save Him from Infamy?

Rep. Christopher Lee appears shirtless in a photograph he reportedly sent to a woman he met on Craigslist.
Rep. Christopher Lee appears shirtless in a photograph he reportedly sent to a woman he met on Craigslist.

Perhaps signaling a new path of action for scandal-ridden politicians, New York Rep. Chris Lee resigned from Congress on Wednesday just hours following allegations online that he had been soliciting an extra-marital relationship on Craigslist. Possibly hoping to sidestep further damage to his image - or stave off the discovery of further indiscretions - Lee swiftly stepped down, apologized, and admitted to "profound mistakes."

Gawker reported on Wednesday that Lee, a second-term Republican congressman from upstate New York, sent topless pictures to a 34-year-old woman who placed an ad in the "Women for Men" section of Craigslist. Gawker also published excerpts of alleged e-mail exchanges between the two, in which Lee described himself as a "divorced" "lobbyist" and a "fit fun classy guy." (Lee is married.)

GOP Congressman Christopher Lee Resigns Over Craigslist Scandal

Unlike many a scandal-plagued congressman before him, however, Lee resigned from Congress almost immediately after the indiscretions had been reported, opting to minimize the media firestorm - and resulting personal damage. "I have to work this out with my wife," he told Fox News.

"It has been a tremendous honor to serve the people of Western New York," Lee said in a statement released Wednesday. "I regret the harm that my actions have caused my family, my staff and my constituents. I deeply and sincerely apologize to them all. I have made profound mistakes and I promise to work as hard as I can to seek their forgiveness."

Lee's rapid resignation denotes a departure from the behavior of a number of his scandal-ridden congressional predecessors, many of whom attempted to wait out the bad press of reported sex scandals - some successfully.

Sen. David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican, admitted to guilt of a "very serious sin" in 2007, after his phone number was found among those associated with an escort service operated by the so-called "D.C. Madam." But after going on a so-called "apology tour" throughout the state of Louisiana, Vitter was re-elected in 2010.

(CBS News political correspondent Marc Ambinder discusses the issue in the video at left.)

Nevada Republican Sen. John Ensign faced similar a situation after it was revealed, in 2009, that he had been having an affair with his former campaign treasurer. Ensign is currently the subject of a special investigation as a result of the affair, but he remains in office - and told Politico recently that his re-election campaign was proceeding "full speed ahead."

In the age of fast-paced online reporting, however, surviving a political scandal requires increased willingness to endure criticism, mockery, and personal attacks.

"By nightfall Wednesday... Lee was no longer a congressman, not even a human being with tragic weaknesses, but merely a target in the biggest firing range ever invented by mankind, the Internet," writes Jerry Zremski in the Buffalo News. "That was an astonishingly quick end to scandal in a city known for scandal."

Lee is not alone in his decision to resign quickly: former Indiana Rep. Mark Souder, a Republican known for his strong stance on conservative family values, stepped down on May 18, 2010, the same day news broke publicly that he had been having an affair with a staffer. (Republican leadership had apparently been notified of the affair in the days leading up to his resignation.)

Former Democratic New York Governor Eliot Spitzer waited only a few days before resigning after it was discovered in 2008 that he had been associated with a high-priced prostitution ring under investigation by the federal government. And New York Rep. Eric Massa, also a Democrat, resigned last March just two days after Politico reported that he was under investigation by the House ethics committee for having sexually harassed a male staffer.

Zremski points out that Lee, somewhat ironically, had warned his constituents about the "the dangers and unknowns associated with a medium that is growing by several billion web pages per day."

"Responding to what may seem like a friendly e-mail or an appealing marketing offer can have serious consequences," he wrote in June 2009 a column in the Tonawanda News. "Private information and images can so easily be transmitted to friends and strangers alike."