Wednesday, April 22, 2009

"How Could I?"

I just finished reading Jonathon Darmon's account of "The Confessions of Eliot Spitzer" in this week's issue of Newsweek, called Spitzer in Exile.

It's an interesting look at the former governor's life one year after the scandal that brought down a powerful politician, a man who might have expected to become (the first Jewish) president one day. And he says a lot of the right things: focusing on his family, making self-deprecating jokes, admitting that even at the time he knew what he was doing was wrong, that there's no excuse, no one to blame other than himself.

But as true contrition it falls short in several places.

For one thing, he never explicitly says that what he did was morally reprehensible, just that it's perceived as such in this neighborhood. Darmon asked Spitzer whether or not Americans ought to care about their leaders' sex lives. Spitzer replied, "I could makes a persuasive case that, no, it isn't fair. But ... you should be smart enough to know that those are the rules, whether or not it's fair ... There are other countries that have a very different set of parameters on these things. But you know when you get in public life here that you live in a fishbowl. So you've got to be smart enough to act accordingly." (P.27)

Is he suggesting that there shouldn't have been political ramifications for him breaking the law? That there isn't an objective measure of right and wrong, just a verdict handed down by the court of public opinion?

And Spitzer talks about "human nature" as if it is this weird, inexplicable, uncontrollable force. "The human mind does and permits people to do things that they rationally know are wrong, outrageous ... We succumb to temptations that we know are wrong and foolish when we do it and then in hindsight we say, 'How could I have?'" (P.23)

Not only does that absolve the individual from responsibility, it specifically takes the pressure off Spitzer when he says "we succumb," "we know," "we do it," and "we say." He's making himself part of a group, not taking personal responsibility for his specific actions in this specific circumstance.

When talking about the support and positive responses he still gets from strangers on the street, Spitzer says, "They respect this notion of, yes, we all absorb the media and read the stories of other people's lives. But when we see them, we think, hey, there but for the grace of God go I. Show the guy some decency." (P.27)

But that's a little silly, isn't it? It's not just "the grace of God" or luck or fate that's kept me from hiring prostitutes. I make CHOICES and I own those choices. I don't see making "dates" and having sex with prostitutes as just one of those things that might happen to me despite my best intentions, like getting cancer or being run over by a garbage truck.

I am happy for Spitzer that he's managed to keep his marriage and family intact. But I think that he has a distance to go before he fully takes responsibility for what he did. And I actually don't think it's wrong for us to consider some issues of character when judging our politicians. Matters of breaking the law, it goes without saying, should definitely be part of that calculus.


Stushie said...

Unfortunately, we're going to see more of this Sarahlynn - it all began with Clinton and Monica in the Whitehouse...

Sarahlynn said...

No, no it didn't.

That level of media coverage and feigned moral outrage by politicians engaged in similar activities began with Clinton.

But politicians acting immorally and having affairs and breaking the law, all that started WAAAAY before Clinton and is not a phenomenon that the Democrats have a lock on.

Topher said...

For me some of the questions have to do with whether or not prostitution should be illegal. Was he morally wrong to cheat on his wife? Absolutely. Was it illegal? Totally. Should it have been? For me, that's a no, even though just because something isn't illegal doesn't mean we can do it if we want. In the case of something which is not illegal, I don't think it should have bearing on political figures (eg, Lewinsky-gate).

As for the human nature issue, I agree with Spitzer, in that everyone has desires for many things, often things that cannot be obtained. (Of course not all of us wish to hire sex workers.) We do have choices, as you say, though, and self-control. He obviously is not blaming himself for his desires, and he shouldn't. He also isn't blaming himself for his loss of control, and for that he should. There are people out there with an incomprehensible urge for pedophilia, but many do not give in to the urge, and they have a hard life because of it. At least they are respectable.

Sarahlynn said...

I agree with you on almost every point. A couple of exceptions:

1) I know that John McCain - as one political example among many - admitted to having several indiscreet affairs and then leaving his first wife after she had a bad car accident years ago. That effects how I see Senator McCain's character and therefore my feelings as a voter. (Clinton's infidelity effected the way I feel about him, too.)

I think the amount of media attention paid to - and sordid detail publicly described about - this sort of thing is ridiculous in some high profile cases, such as President Clinton's. And I think that the whole special prosecutor/impeachment fiasco was an ENORMOUSLY irresponsible and inappropriate use of government time and money.

But there's no denying that the way politicians behave in their non-public life does have a bearing on how I see them, for better or for worse.

2) Sex work is a thorny and complicated issue for me. But I am certain of one thing, and that I'm sick and FREAKING TIRED of our tendency as a society to encourage - or at least not strongly discourage - certain needs/desires and then penalize those who make a living by meeting those needs. I hate the hypocrisy of harsher penalties and heavier prosecution for sex workers vs. johns and by the same token the same for small time drug dealers vs. users.

Mary P Jones (MPJ) said...

I'll have to read the article, because you know I have some thoughts on this. I still think this was compulsive behavior, although from what you quote of Spitzer, it sounds like he doesn't believe that and isn't working to change.

Sarahlynn said...

It's hard to tell how he really feels, since apparently several weeks of interviews were condensed into this one article. But from the quotes the author provided . . . yeah, that's my guess.

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