What the Demise of Elliott Spitzer Reveals

by Paul Dubinsky

[Paul Dubinsky is a law professor at Wayne State University Law School].

For years we have been told that the problem with our politics lies in our public servants. They go off to Washington and forget who put them there. They arrive at the state house and quickly regard themselves as above the law. Decency’s address, we are told, is Main Street. Corruption’s address is Pennsylvania Avenue. So, in this election cycle, as in each one since Watergate, the people yearn for a plain-talking figure from outside the system. We want someone free of personal vice, someone who transcends daily politics and attack ads, someone who personifies the values we want to teach our children.

It is a seductive vision of national salvation. We just need to find a hero on a white horse to set things straight. It is also a dangerous half truth. Yes, part of the problem of American politics today is the venality of some of our public servants, but another part of the problem rarely discussed is that the American people possess something of a mean streak. For all our occasional generosity and capacity for compassion, we enjoy watching other people’s public distress. Each time a public figure gets hauled in front of the cameras to become the object of ridicule, it is really the underbelly of American life that is on display. We see the part of the national character that treats almost anything as sport, the part that takes comfort in seeing anyone wealthier, smarter, or more successful brought low. There has always been a place in American politics for the simple morality play, for tarring and feathering the genuine do-gooder who also happens to be flawed.

What is so bad about an occasional morality play? Is there a danger to the Republic in the gleeful media blitz and Internet traffic regarding Eliot Spitzer and other sex scandals? Yes, there is. It is not just that a Monica Lewinsky affair totally consumes the time and energies of Congress. It is not merely that every time a public official is exposed and brought down, a thousand young people decide to head for careers in the entertainment industry rather than government. It is also that each public lynching propagates two pernicious untruths: (1) that it is realistic to expect to find talented public servants who possess no embarrassing personal weaknesses; and (2) that all vices are somehow equal, that lying to one’s spouse is as bad in a public servant as lying under oath.

The latter untruth is probably the bigger worry. People point to Eliot Spitzer and say that his hypocrisy shows that government officials are the problem and that our government needs to be as small and weak as possible. But the issue is not whether Mr. Spitzer or any elected official falls short of the ideal. Everyone does. Our views about government cannot be overly shaped by disappointment in some of the people who hold office. The issue is what sorts of flaws render a person truly unfit for public office. That is the national conversation that is long overdue. Is a person unfit for leadership because he has solicited sex in an airport restroom? Or is he unfit because, through misrepresentation, he led the country into a costly war? Can we accept senior Justice Department officials lawyers who tell the President what he or she wants to hear? Is having sex with a prostitute more disqualifying than condoning torture or refusing to level with the American people about global warming?


4 Responses

  1. Excellent questions all and I think I see where you’re heading with this (or what you’re implying). Nonetheless, one issue lurking in the background is the extent we expect the same virtues or qualities of character in the familial, “private” or intimate life of civil society to hold true for individuals in public life, for politicians and civil servants concerned principally with collective conduct. It seems to me that many of us instinctively or intuitively believe that standards or criteria for good character and moral virtue(s) should not be substantively different for the two realms of conduct, expecially given the extent to which decision making in the political arena often involves any number of ethical dilemmas and moral principles the nature of which frequently entail a depth and breadth of scale and consequence unimaginable in the intimate spheres of daily life, and hence the increased expectations with regard to personal character and ethical integrity. In other words, and for better and worse, the two arenas of moral action are not schizophrenically related to each other, there is, rather, and arguably, some sort of intrinsic relation between one’s private and public character, even if the relation is not evident to those on the outside looking in. The ancient Greeks seem to have had a keen appreciation of this, one which survives to some extent in Republican political theory of Stoic inspiration and Roman vintage. Indeed, given the temptations of “dirty hands,” we would hope those who choose to embark on the arduous path of public and social service possess the requisite kind and strength of character that is finely attuned to the peculiar moral problems that attend public life as well as the ethical stature and integrity necessary to properly attend to the common good.

    Our politicians emerge from a society that is in some measure responsible for the kinds of individuals it socializes and educates and thus to that extent we get the sorts of government, public servants and politicians we deserve. Likewise, and therefore, their failings and shortcomings are reflective and symptomatic of same in the surrounding society, hence the vicarious pleasure and indulgence in schadenfreude that follows public scandals, most exquisitely expressed in the celebratory cults of celebrity.

    But you’re absolutely right that we need to recover a sense of proportion and perspective, to see how and why “having sex with a prostitute” a la Spitzer is an ethical lapse of a different order than “condoning torture or refusing to level with the American people about global warming.”

    And by all means let the conversation begin (it seems these days it will only be initiated by a blockbuster movie of some sort, so…).

  2. Sexual harassment, perjury, and prostitution and illegal money transfers are all illegal. With what exactly do you have a problem? Bush got bad intel from the CIA, UN, France, UK — when you go to court unknowingly with a faulty police report and an officer who is lying on the witness stand are you a liar and in contempt of court? You’ll lose your case and you may lose some respect for competence (a very valid question). None but the morally obtuse, however, would question your integrity.

    Bush has many flaws — lying is not one of them. Spitzer and Clinton have many flaws — lying happens to be one of theirs. Theirs resulted in criminal acts. Spitzer had the class to resign. I hope for his sake and his family’s sake he reevaluates both his priorities and his totalitarian tendencies. His private views and his arrogance made him a progressive fascist with strong-arm tactics and shakedowns. Good riddance as a public figure.

    As to the condoning torture. A good number of the American public aren’t too concerned over whether a terrorist gets really scared (there is an incredible lack of outrage except in the usual places). The majority of people do however agree on sexual harassment and prostitution being criminal acts and actionable in court. A Republican — larry Craig notwithstanding) would most likely resign out of shame. Only “progressives” are too righteous in their politics to give up the ship of state. Pathetic.

  3. Troy, your statement implying that Bush is an honest politican dumbfounds me. To say that Bush simply got bad intelligence, and this excuses what he has done, is naive in the extreme. Moreover, it’s not a topic worthy of debate.

    As for your final paragraph, it’s confused. Whether or not the American public is concerned with torture (or, to use your euphemism, scaring a terrorist), misses the point. No one believes that torture is permitted, whatever they might think about the merits of perpetrating it. Thus, your distinction between torture on the one hand, and sexual harassment and prositution on the other, is flawed.

  4. I’m of the opinion that Structuring shouldn’t even be on the books, myself, much less prosecuted.

    That being said, it would appear he broke several other laws.

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