On Spitzer: Can our Leaders be Cheaters?

Do we really need to expose sexual peccadilloes of our politicians – does the immorality of their personal/sexual life translate into their jobs in public service? Or is this an outdated mode of judgement?

You know what I can’t stand? Cheaters. Though I try to keep an open mind about most things, and understand that nobody’s perfect – including and especially me – infidelity riles up something in my insides. It’s brought distance to previously close relationships and prevented some from what might have been. And although I thought I was an equal opportunity judge and jury of character, my husband sees it differently. He notes that I’m more tolerant and forgiving of our female friends’ transgressions than of our male friends.

It pisses me off when he says that.

Because he might be right. I hate when I’m hypocritical.

The thing is, I usually understand women better. Their motivations seem more complex than kicks on a Friday night. But it could just be my bias. I’m working to rectify that.

Here in New York, we are swimming in penis jokes. Between Anthony Weiner’s campaign for mayor and now Eliot Spitzer’s run for city comptroller, it would seem like New York is nothing but a bastion of sexual dysfunction – which makes for a fun coverage if you’re a late night talk show host or a headline writer for The New York Post. And though I can’t speak with authority for all of us, I wonder if maybe every single place in the country might be bastion of sexual dysfunction. Maybe not of the high-priced prostitute variety (which might be limited to the coastal states) – or even like the Twitpic heard ‘round the world that completed the punchline that Weiner’s name serves up on a platter, but of the unfaithful spouse type. Nothing gets the morality police aroused (heh) like an election, where we put our candidates through public scrutiny that isn’t matched in any other profession in the world.

It’s always interesting to watch candidates paint themselves as pillars of virtue while their opponents’ PR people dig up dirt. Eliot Spitzer was the super-smart attorney general from New York, who didn’t mince words and brought toughness and badassery to the democratic party. He ran on moral superiority – taking on the thieves, liars, and criminals that ran Wall Street before anyone ever knew it needed to be Occupied. He flew into the Governor’s mansion and I thought he was a sure shot to be our first Jewish president. And then. He was outed as “Client #9” in a high-end prostitution ring and he prepaid for his next visit. So while the revelations about Spitzer were particularly zing-worthy – uncovering a level of hypocrisy not seen before in recent memory – what does it really mean? 

Taina Bien-Aime, executive director of the Women’s City Club, has taken Spitzer’s misdeed and painted it within the context of the wider sex-trafficking industry.  She makes a terrific point about how prostitution isn’t a victimless crime. And crime it is, since this is New York and not Las Vegas. A crime for which the prosecutor has yet to be prosecuted (unless you count the press.) And though Bien-Aime admits that Spitzer had worked to pass legislation against sex trafficking in the past, she is clear in her view: no forgiveness. NOW has taken a similar stance and is actively protesting both Spitzer and Weiner’s candidacies.

John Dickerson of Slate takes Spitzer to task for asking the forgiveness of the public while being known to never be particularly forgiving himself, as if “forgiveness” is a virtue that we want in our attorneys general. Spitzer is known for his ruthless, take no prisoners style, which is appropriate when you’re actually taking no prisoners. And though Dickerson gives Spitzer props for having the foresight to prosecute Wall Street for its illegal pillaging of American society way back in 2005, his conclusion is unequivocal: no forgiveness.

Forgiveness. It’s a fascinating concept in the political context. Politicians, like celebrities, have their marriages fail on the public stage: John Edwards, Newt Gingrich, Weiner, Spitzer, Mark Sanford. They parade with the cuckold wives, standing beside them to prop up their lost credibility. We tut tut and gossip and judge, then go have one too many and make out with the neighbor’s husband or hook up with old high school girlfriends on Facebook.  It all begs the question: do we want politicians to be philosopher kings, above and away from the public in geography and morality, or should we accept them as a reflection of who we are? Can they serve the public owning their humanness or do we have to hold them to moral perfection (which includes the obligatory church-going?) Might these expectations result in a powder keg of unrealistic expectation? Might the celeb status of our politicians contribute to their spectacular failings?

Am I asking these questions because I’m looking for a way to forgive Spitzer because I admire his tenacity, his mind, and the good that I can still see him achieve in public office? As a woman, am I participating in a paternalistic culture that shames women by doing so?

Or might I be becoming a more equal opportunity forgiver, able to see nuance in not just the infidelity of women, but men as well?

Author: Jaime Franchi

Jaime Franchi is a freelance writer living on Long Island. Her work can be found on Salon.com, Milieu Magazine, Punchnel's and the New York Times. www.JaimeFranchi.com

17 thoughts on “On Spitzer: Can our Leaders be Cheaters?”

  1. I think they can still be leaders. But it doesn’t mean I respect them. Respecting one’s character is important to me, but unfortunately, (or fortunately) I’m not sure it has much to do with the way they lead. Then again… as I’m typing this, character is everything. And people make mistakes. I suppose I have a lot more thinking to do about this, Jaime.

  2. I would have more tolerance for their peccadilloes if they didn’t paint ThemSelves as such moral, upright creatures while they are philandering. That hypocrisy is beyond my understanding.

  3. @Phyllis – I know! As I was writing this, I considered the question of whether Spitzer was trying to right a flaw he had personally on a macro scale by focusing on ethics in public service. But that could just be me going wildly out of my way to make sense of something simple.

  4. if sex weren’t all wrapped up in religion and legal proscriptions that literally define it as something that is shameful (or wrong or weird or illegal or … ) unless practiced by two adult married people, there would be a lot less angsty finger-pointing going on. i don’t mean to be flip or avante-garde (i’m an elderly married white woman, for pete’s sake), but women (i think you’re saying and i agree) think it should involve emotion and commitment and men see it (more, but not exclusively) as physical pleasure and somewhat of the moment. and can only one of those be right?

    i have to toss in here that i think sex-for-money should be legalized, which would eliminate the horrors of the sex trade, disease vector, etc. =plus then it’s really just sex, right? i mean, do guys fall in love with prostitutes (except richard gere)?

    so maybe it’s more the women who are outraged by spitzer? i wonder if that’s true. and, of course, the media is all over it because what’s better than a sex scandal for copy? lots of pieces to this excellent article, jaime. maybe the bonobos have the answer: sex is just a way to keep people satisfied.

  5. sorry. one more thing. the current mayor in san diego (a dem named filner who used to be a congressman) is embroiled in a HUGE scandal involving allegations by multiple women, some of whom were employees, of blatant sexual harassment (groping women’s breasts, bums, kissing or attempting to kiss women, get them alone, etc.) and talking down to/demeaning/denigrating female staffers publicly. the guy is a complete boor, has been for decades, everyone knows about it, but the specifics and these women just went public in the last week. filner isn’t married (though he was engaged until he fiancee found out about some of this stuff and recently bailed).

    frankly, i am **far** more outraged by this conduct than i ever would be if he had been caught spending money for sex with a hooker.

  6. Candace – Yes, I think it’s safe to say that women are more outraged by his behavior than men (not that I’ve taken a poll.) I think that tough, brilliant economic and legal minds are few and far between. Democrats can’t afford to throw him out permanently for a meh politician with a perfect marriage. To your point about prostitution – even if we did legalize it, it was illegal when he solicited one.

  7. 1. What I love about your posts is that you bring the personal touch into discussions of public issues, and don’t claim to have all the answers. I wish more writers would do that.

    2. I’m generally forgiving of the sexual peccadillos (ooh, that sounds dirty) of our public figures. People should be judged on their work. I always point out that FDR and JFK cheated, and Richard Nixon didn’t. They say that if every cheater were kicked out of government then the halls of Congress would be empty (though sometimes that might be a good thing).

    3. I don’t think the problem is that politicians pose as pillars of virtue; I think the problem is that too many voters demand that they do. This is certainly not true in most European countries (though God forbid we ever elect someone like Berlusconi). I think that’s changing, though; I’ve always believed that the big reason Clinton survived the Lewinsky scandal is because he had already admitted to infidelity while running for office, and therefore never professed to be a saint.

    4. Of the cheating pols you mentioned, the only one I feel genuine sympathy for is Mark Sanford. Although he handled the situation poorly, he had genuinely fallen in love with the other woman, which is not the case for the others. (Well, except maybe Gingrich, but he’s an opportunist.)

  8. Nikki Stern Here’a the deal: Cheating happens. It goes with the self-centered, hubristic circus that is politics, or so my European friends are always reminding me. That being said, I can’t remember the last time a European politician went on about his values. If I’d been a French citizen, I probably would have voted for Francois Hollande even as I desired to kick him in the nuts for dumping the mother of his four children for a younger woman. But there’s something about Spitzer in particular that makes it hard to separate him from his shenanigans. I think it’s his holier-than-thou attitude. So, can our leaders be cheaters? Yes. Can they be dick-heads? Not in my book.

  9. I also wonder what many of the liberals who are unforgiving about Spitzer and Weiner feel about Ted Kennedy – who let a woman drown to save his own political skin. He remained beloved right up to the end, even though he did something that I believe is far more heinous than anything Spitzer or Weiner did.

  10. lots of pols have had sex (of various kinds) scandals. some people will hate the guy because of that, period. but i think one of the points you’re making is more important than getting sidetracked into the sex part (who did he do, was it love, how many affairs, etc etc) – and that’s the pol proclaiming I Am Virtuous and *then* doing it. nikki mentions it.

    so it’s the sanctimony and the attempt to appeal to ‘values voters’ – gawd, i hate that term – that i see as a bigger hurdle. for spitzer and others with that baggage.

  11. I have far less problem with his cheating than with his hypocrisy in going after prostitution while availing himself of the services of them him self. For me, cheating on a spouse isn’t a deal killer in voting, but righteous hypocrisy is, which is why I would not vote for him. And I agree with Richard… his crime was worse. Although Weiner is just a plain liar.

  12. Many people say that a politician should be judged on his work and not his personal life.

    However, when it comes to sex the male politician’s personal life (usually) involves women. And how men in power treat women in private must surely have some relation to how they will deal with women in their official capacity.

    OTOH, as Richard Brown points out, some politicians we admire cheated, and some we loathe didn’t.

    But, Richard, I agree with you about Ted K. Never got over that incident myself. Can’t understand why he survived politically.

  13. I’m not married to the guy, so the cheating aspect does not affect me one bit. For me, the issue of the sex industry is also separate. I *am* bothered that he used public funds to do what he did. I don’t think I’d want him managing my money.

  14. Sex is fun. Sex with new partners is exceptional fun. Loving someone and having loving sex is great…but for a long, extremely intense orgasm, nothing beats something new; something different; something dangerous.

    I cannot imagine there ever was a time when all this was not so…nor can I imagine a time in the near future where it will not be so.

    Politicians and other people of opportunity are going to engage in sex that results in long, extremely intense orgasms…which means they are going to try something new; something different; something dangerous.

    That is because we choose our politicians (and other people of opportunity) from among the human population.

    If you (universal “you”) want politicians or captains of industry who do not screw around…perhaps you ought consider moving to a different planet. Perhaps even to a different galaxy.

    My feelings are that humanity would be better off without all the obligations of fidelity that we artificially demand of ourselves. We are stuck with that nonsense right now…so we gotta live with it. For me, I never take any of that crap into consideration when I cast a vote. I accept the humanity of all the candidates…and choose the one I think will most help (or least harm) the progressive agenda I deem essential to a decent society.

    Jaime…you really are sensational at this “writing” thing!

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