New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, who rose to power on his reputation as a crusader against white collar crime and lax ethics, has been implicated as a client of a high-end prostitution ring. My reaction? Here we go again.
One more time, a man in high political office is caught with his pants down. One more time, we cluck-cluck about how unforgivably stupid he was to behave in this way knowing – as on some level he must have – that his chances of being caught were high. And one more time we note the strange, lopsided standards that hold sway in the US, and how often the context of bad behavior – the fact of it – is worse than the bad behavior itself.
Of course Spitzer should have known better. Politicians have to be aware of the need for impeccable personal behavior, both legally and morally. Their careers depend on it more than most people's. That's because the American press, and a portion of the populace, demand that politicians be as pure as clergymen. (Okay, maybe not clergymen – bad example.)
Yet time and again, the politicians fail. Perhaps with power comes a false sense of invulnerability, but I'll leave the psychology to the psychologists; my point is that every time this happens, we talk about our foolish standards for politicians, about how their personal lives shouldn't suffer such scrutiny or bear so heavily on how well we judge their job performance – yet nothing ever changes.
To make a somewhat extreme analogy, do you actually know anyone who thinks marijuana should be flat-out illegal in every circumstance? I'd wager most of us know very few, if any, such people. Yet politicians continue to believe that that's what their constituents want. There may be some areas, some constituencies, that back the federal government's zero tolerance policy for marijuana even for medical use, but it's not most of the country. Yet nothing changes.
Nothing changes for politicians and their sexual peccadilloes, either. Of course, some get away with their shenanigans, even when caught, but that's when circumstances are murky, or so tawdry that most of us would rather not even think about them.
As of this moment, Spitzer's not saying whether he'll resign, but he may well have to. Given his law-and-order reputation, it seems doubtful that his political career can survive. And then the weirdness of our standards will drop out of public discourse. We'll go on as we have been, holding politicians to impossibly high standards, and sometimes thereby losing the services, or the effectiveness, of some of the most talented and useful ones we have.