Eliot Spitzer Is Just the Latest

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.


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Posted by at 06:00 | Posted in Measure 37 | 11 Comments |Email This Post Email This Post |Print This Post Print This Post
  • Jerry

    I believe it is called puttin’ on the Spitz!

  • Alan

    News is that he may resign by Monday. A very quick and sudden reversal fo fortune.

  • Dan E.

    I agree that Democrats seem to get preferential treatment when it comes to their ethical and sexual foibles. As a Republican, that can be very frustrating. However, if some Republicans would stop trying to forcibly realign everyone’s moral compass to the Old Testament, my guess is the treatment might even out a bit. The scandal of the fallen is not in the act itself….it’s in the hypocricy. Would the story of Spitzer be nearly as juicy (and satisfying, if you heard the reaction on the Wall Street trading floors) had he not touted himself as this great moral crusader? How about every other gay-bashing Republican who has been outed as a homosexual? Democrats (for the most part) get away with their offenses not because the acts themselves are any less awful, but because they often know better than to climb atop the teetering, unstable moral pillar above the masses and preach how everyone should live their lives, while acting better than everyone else. Republicans who do unsavory things in their private lives are almost trying to do some form of penance by railing against their own generic acts in public. Perhaps they should just keep their pants zipped, or find a new line of work that doesn’t require public approval.

    Bottom line: If you talk the talk, you sure as hell better walk the walk. Otherwise, just keep yer yap shut and lower my taxes. I can make my own moral decisions.

    • Chris McMullen

      Dan, truer words have never been written on this blog. I agree with you 110%.

      As a libertarian, I find it perplexing conservatives waste their time with anti-gay and anti-abortion stances. If they’d quite pounding the pulpit with these issues, they’d have a much better chance at regaining the majority in the public’s eye.

      To make matters worse, they turn around and abandon all fiscal responsibility during their majority tenure in congress.

      The Rs better get their stuff together if they want to keep from becoming irrelevant.

  • Steve Buckstein

    Larry, you correctly state that “most people are forced to spend every waking moment” doing the tasks of everyday life, leaving little time to keep tabs on politicians. But, even for those with the time and inclination, there is another reason for not taking the time it takes to learn enough about candidates to make an intelligent decision between them.

    Economists call it “rational ignorance.” Unlike taking the time to research and decide between a Ford and Chevy, it makes little sense to spend the time studying politicians because once the decision is made, casting the “proper” vote doesn’t ensure that you will get the choice you voted for. Decide on the Chevy, and you get the Chevy. Decide on Gore (using a historical example) and you get Bush.

    Therefore, it’s rationally ignorant for most people to spend little time deciding how to vote in elections. This is just another reason why markets are generally better than politics in delivering what people want.

  • Rupert in Springfield

    A quick list of Republicans who seem to think everyone should live their lives according to their own narrow morality, but in the end, don’t walk the walk themselves.

    Al Gore – Who thinks everyone should follow his global warming religion, but in the end, gets found to be a total hypocrite, using as much electricity in a month as most do in a year. And then finds a neat tax scheme with carbon credits to boot.

    Ted Kennedy – Who thinks no one should have a gun to defend themselves, but quickly bails out his body guard who gets caught with two illegal machine pistols entering the capitol building.

    Hillary Clinton – Who railed against pharmaceutical companies, their greed, their avarice, in her husbands first term, but saw nothing inconsistent in selling drug stocks short while she used her position to decimate the stock price.

    Jesse Jackson – Who while going on and on about teen pregnancy, had a love child on the side.

  • Dan E.

    Those are excellent examples of why most of us can’t stomach the standard-bearers of the democrat party, and there is no dearth of selection from their ranks. Hypocricy is, in the eyes of many, a much more grevious offense. I guess I just have a higher standard for my own party. We have literally torn ourselves apart from the inside to focus so keenly on issues like homosexuality, abortion and puritanical do’s and dont’s that the vast majority of voters in their average daily life…don’t give a crap about. We scramble for the moral high ground in every election contest in what could only be described as a Phyrric victory…when it’s a victory at all.

    So for all that sacrifice and political self-mutilation, I guess I expect a little bit more from Republicans.

    • Rupert in Springfield

      Sure, I can agree with that. Frankly I think the vast majorities of both parties wish that neither would address most of the social issues they seem to want to get involved in.

      That said, it is amazing how members of the Democratic party, that seems to use the phrase “moral high ground” at virtually every opportunity, get incensed at the thought of others “pushing their morality” on them. At this point when I hear a Democrat yammering on about how they don’t like Republicans trying to cram their morality down peoples throat, I simply have to laugh. “Kind of annoying isn’t it? I’ve been putting up with it for 40 some odd years from you guys”.

      Homosexuality? Religious Right? Neocons and Evangelicals?

      Give me a break, you people have had me on the cross because of the car I drive, whether or not I recycle my garbage or because I eat food that requires cow flatulence to produce. Get real.

  • Joanne Rigutto

    Excelent article and I have to agree completely with Dan E. and Chris McMullen.

    I think that people who live in glass houses should use care when they start throwing rocks.

  • notLeno

    I used to think that term limits were necessary to prevent entrenched politicians from eventually abusing their position. Spitzer has changed all of that.

    Now I am more inclined to say that we should incarcerate our politicians just as soon as they are elected. Saves time.

  • Bo

    Gee Larry,
    Mentioning the long list of scandal elected from both both parties makes me feel like the guy in the Scream picture.

    Now just start clocking dates of when they happened and I bet you can get a seasonal cycle of scandal that is scientificaly verifiable and predictable.

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