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 Or is this an outdated mode of judgement?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?