Why you should care
Because one should never underestimate the role of sex in coming prematurely to power.
As rapid as Barack Obama’s four-year rise from Illinois state senator to U.S. president was, it feels downright sluggish when compared with Vladimir Putin, who went from a deputy chief of staff to Russia’s acting president in just over 18 months. While Putin’s and Obama’s politics and paths to power differ — a little community organizing here, a little KGB organizing there — the rapid political ascendancy of both men was facilitated by a common event: an opponent’s sex scandal.
In 1999, Yuri Skuratov, a 46-year-old lawyer and politician serving as prosecutor general, the Russian equivalent of attorney general, was conducting investigations into government corruption under then-president and Putin mentor Boris Yeltsin. The case stopped dead in March of that year when a state-controlled television network aired excerpts of a videotape showing a nude man resembling Skuratov in a hotel bed with a pair of prostitutes.
By all appearances, it was a classic use of the old KGB tool of kompromat (compromising information). Shortly thereafter, another 46-year-old Russian lawyer named Vladimir Putin, a former deputy chief of staff for Yeltsin, entered the picture. Looking more like a regional bank president than a former KGB officer and future world leader, Putin, who had recently been appointed to head the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB), the modern KGB, held a press conference in which he claimed that the man caught on tape was indeed Skuratov. President Yeltsin would dismiss the prosecutor in the wake of the scandal, calling upon his newly positioned chief legal officer, Putin, to explain to the Russian public why the dismissal was justified and constitutional.
With his prosecutor and a potential rival out of the way, Yeltsin’s rule continued unchallenged, and Putin, now a household name thanks to the scandal, would soon be appointed Russia’s new prime minister by the grateful Yeltsin. When Yeltsin suddenly stepped down from power on Dec. 31, 1999, it was Putin who became Russia’s new acting president. And Putin’s first decree as president? You guessed it, granting Yeltsin and his family immunity from any future corruption probes.
To add electoral insult to injury, Skuratov, tainted by scandal, was a non-factor in the following year’s elections, and even had trouble registering as a candidate. Putin, of course, went on to win the 2000 election with 53 percent of the vote, and his meteoric rise, sex scandal in tow, was complete.
The Ryan sex scandal was political manna from heaven for the “skinny kid with a funny name.”
Another ambitious lawyer-turned-politician looking to make a name for himself on the national stage did not do so well in 2000. In his first race for Congress, 38-year-old Barack Obama was trounced in the House Democratic primary in Illinois by incumbent Bobby Rush. Given that loss, as longtime adviser David Axelrod told Charlie Rose in a recent interview, Obama informed his wife, Michelle, if he lost his next race for Congress in 2004, “That’s it. I’ll be out of politics.”
With Axelrod’s help, Obama lapped the Democratic field in the March 2004 primary contest to fill the U.S. Senate seat for Illinois being vacated by the retiring Republican Sen. Peter Fitzgerald. But standing in Obama’s way was a handsome, All-American Republican named Jack Ryan, a multimillionaire and former Goldman Sachs partner who had given it all up to teach at a Franciscan high school. Obama held a narrow lead in early polls, and it was shaping up to be a tight race for a seat that could well influence the balance of power in the Senate.
Then, one month before his famous speech at the Democratic convention in July 2004, Obama got a break that would arguably play a far larger role in his election than his dazzling convention performance. Thanks to a lawsuit brought by the Chicago Tribune, custody records from Ryan’s divorce from his wife, actress Jeri Ryan, were released to the public. In those papers, Jeri, best known for her Spandex-clad role in TV’s Star Trek: Voyager, alleged that while they were married, Jack had taken her to sex clubs in several cities as part of supposed “romantic getaways” and pressured her (unsuccessfully) to have sex in public.
Ryan denied the claims, but with the American public’s imagination dancing with images of whips, sex clubs and mattressed cubicles, he was soon forced to withdraw from the election, and Obama trounced his replacement, Alan Keyes, and headed to Washington. The Ryan sex scandal — notable, among other things, for the lack of actual sex and the fact that its participants were married — was political manna from heaven for the “skinny kid with a funny name” that all of America would soon know.
Could Ryan have beaten Obama? Maybe not, but we’ll never know, and his absence certainly accelerated Obama’s breakneck rise to power — just as Skuratov’s dalliance with prostitutes helped boost Putin’s expeditious ascent a few years before.
The takeaway: Juicy sex scandals don’t just take down those they tarnish, they can also open up pathways to power for those fortunate enough to be waiting in the wings.