Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D-NY) has joined a long, and seemingly endless, list of politicians who think the rules should not apply to them. This isn’t a partisan issue. It didn’t begin with Wilbur Mills (D-MO) and won’t end with Rick Renzi (R-AZ). For every Richard Nixon (R), there is a Bill Clinton (D). For every William Jefferson (D-LA) there is a Randy Cunningham (R-CA). For every Barney Franks (D-Mass) there is a Larry Craig (R-ID). For every Neil Goldschmidt (D-OR) and Jim McGreevy (D-NJ) there is a Bob Packwood (R-OR). And for every David Vitter (R-LA) there is a Ted Kennedy (D-Mass) and Kwame Killpatrick (D-Mich).
Spitzer is a particularly disgusting example because virtually his entire body of public service arises from holding others accountable for an extraordinarily high standard of conduct. He lectured us about public accountability while using public funds and public employees to undertake surveillance of his political enemies. He damned others over prostitution while apparently engaging high priced call girls for his own amusement. He sniffed at the travails of others while subjecting his wife and three daughters to his own salacious conduct. But he is only the latest to demonstrate this kind of sociopathic conduct that is increasingly becoming the routine of politicians and others in public life.
Sinclair Lewis wrote the novel Elmer Gantry in 1926 in which he detailed the life of a fire and brimstone preacher who publicly railed against the wages of sin — liquor, prostitution, gambling, infidelity — while privately partaking excessively of all of them. Nothing has changed. The hypocrisy of those who feed on the shortcomings of others is particularly egregious.
So, how is it that this phenomenon recurs so regularly in political life? It is probably a combination of critical elements that ignite this abhorrent conduct. First, just as pedophiles are attracted to positions like teacher, coach and clergy, other types of sociopaths are attracted to political life. A pedophile knows that as a teacher, coach or clergy, he will have access to children in a position of trust. The people like Sptizer and Goldschmidt know that they can use their public position to immunize themselves for the most part from accountability. Experience has taught them that few politicians are punished for violating the standards of conduct to which they demand others be held.
Second, there are armies of sycophants willing to turn a blind eye toward this type of conduct. Those who depend on a politician for a job. Those who curry favor from a politician for political favors. And those who build their own self-importance by association with politicians. It is simply impossible to believe that of all of those people who surrounded Neil Goldschmidt (during his term as mayor or governor or in his post-gubernatorial command of Oregon Democrats) only a lowly speech writer an a dufus like Bernie Guisto knew of his repeated rape of a fourteen-year old. Those who drew their power from their association with Goldschmidt and remained silent are as culpable as Goldschmidt himself.
When I was in private practice as a lawyer, I routinely lobbied on behalf of a variety of business trade groups. The first year I lobbied was an intense session in which Democrats took control of both houses with two-thirds majorities and business interests were subject to a barrage of destructive legislation. At the end of the session my wife and I went to the lake for a week’s vacation. I sat on the deck and read, walked with my dog along the lake, or sat on the dock lost in how “critically important” my role had been in the past session. Finally, my wife interrupted by private reverie and told me that if I wasn’t going to communicate with her we just as well go back home where she had other things to do. Between that, and the admonition from my father that nobody more than a mile from the state capitol cared about what the legislature did, it dawned on me that I was part of that army of sycophants who created an unnatural atmosphere of importance and impunity for politicians. While I continued to lobby for years after that, I developed a healthy cynicism about the importance of politicians and found friendship with those politicians who shared that cynicism.
Third, there is a compliant press who find that cooperation gives them access and political allegiance allows them to join in lecturing others. The liberals have newspapers and broadcast television while the conservatives have talk radio and cable news. In Oregon there is evidence that the Oregonian knew of Neil Goldschmidt’s sexual abuse of a fourteen-year-old for years prior to its disclosure by Willamette Week. The Oregonian chose to bury the story rather than pursue it because it had become part of the Goldschmidt inner circle. On a national level we have seen the Washington Post and the New York Times rail against Republicans for the very same acts that they bury on behalf of Democrats. Currently, Rick Renzi (R-AZ) is front-page news for his indictment while the trial of William Jefferson (D-LA) who was caught with a freezer full of bribes is largely ignored.
And finally, there are the voters who expect little from their politicians and receive even less. The sociopaths who gravitate to politics depend on this inattentiveness of the public in order to say one thing and do another. One cannot blame the voters. Most people are forced to spend every waking moment trying to put bread on the table, keep their businesses open and keep their children safe. They have little or no time to attend to the accountability that should be imposed on politicians. And therein lies the rub.
The whole concept of public service is predicated on the ideal of protecting the public because the public is otherwise engaged. Those who seek public office should conduct themselves in a manner above the expectations of private life. But it is that very expectation coupled with a lack of real time accountability that permits the Eliot Spitzers of the world to continue, like Elmer Gantry, to say one thing and do quite another.