Come-Uppance

I won’t have much more to say about the Eliot Spitzer debacle, as it’s not especially interesting, and certainly nothing new. But I wouldn’t want readers to think that when big stories like this come along, all I can do is jeer and snigger, so for tonight, let’s set aside the japery for a moment of more serious reflection. And then, back to sniggering.

The charge that everyone is making is that of hypocrisy, and to be sure, there ne’er was fairer game. Spitzer made an awful swagger as he blew into Albany; even at his inauguration ceremony, an occasion at which politicians customarily feign graciousness, he wasted no time in crassly insulting his predecessor and former boss, who was seated just a few feet away. And no sooner had he unpacked his bags than he began roostering about, throwing a big chest and presenting himself as a righteous, wrathful “steamroller”, as a flaming sword of moral rectitude previously unexampled in New York’s long and mottled political history. In Spitzer’s eight-year auto-da-fé as attorney general he had never shown the least inclination toward liberal interpretation of the law, and in fact had even turned his flame-rimmed Eye upon a prostitution ring or two. So I think it’s not unfair to say that illegally sneaking cash around for years in order to have sex with high-priced whores is rather at odds with the image he’s been trying to project.

Hypocrisy, however, though far from admirable, is arguably not as bad as all that. We are weak, and we may still feel that certain virtues deserve our public support even if we lack the spine to embody them ourselves. (This is hardly an original observation on my part; it has been made by many others, including, in the current context, here.) Dr. William Vallicella has made a nice distinction among classes of hypocrites in this post: he points out that while there are those who try to live up to their professed ideals and fail, far lower on the moral scale are those who don’t even bother to try. I will not presume to assess which of these our soon-to-be-ex-Governor is, though I have my suspicions.

Reactions have varied. Many of his constituents, understandably feeling deceived and betrayed, are howling to see his glabrous pate on a pikestaff. Others, however, have said, after the European fashion, that we always make far too big a deal about these sexual peccadillos. Powerful men will always want lots of sex with lots of women, they point out. Men don’t even get to the upper echelons of political power without being testosterone-fueled alpha types. Look at JFK, for crying out loud; the man made Bill Clinton look like Ozzie Nelson. In the old days this would all have been swept under the rug.

Well, perhaps, but this isn’t the old days. A humbler, more diffident governor, one known as a sweet-natured conciliator rather than as a pushier version of Oliver Cromwell, might have got away with this, but there will be no gentle rain of mercy to douse the flames for Eliot Spitzer. One fact about state governments that he, in his arrogance, refused to acknowledge is that just like Silly Putty, they will flow smoothly under constant pressure, but if you try to stretch them too quickly, they simply break. So, having made it his first order of business as governor to insult, belittle and alienate all of the powerful players he was going to have to work with, his ability to get anything done in Albany was already severly hampered; after this idiocy, it is exactly zero. He must go, and soon.

As usual, the real victims here are his poor, gracious wife, and his young daughters. How unspeakably awful this must be for them.

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  1. Chemists call this deformation-rate-dependent viscosity. I never metaphor I didn’t like.