As a New York City resident for almost three decades, there is only one vote for state and local office that fills me with daily remorse and even shame. It was my November 2006 decision to pull the lever on an old-fashioned voting machine for Democratic gubernatorial candidate and alleged reformer Eliot Spitzer.
We all know how that played out for Client No. 9 of the Emperor's Club prostitution service. Sixteen months later, with his distraught wife Silda at his side, Spitzer resigned as governor
, reading a prepared statement that began with these words, "In the past few days, I've begun to atone for my private failings . . ."
We also know how long those days of atonement lasted – about long enough type "I'm so-o-o-o-o sorry and I'm already plotting a comeback" on his BlackBerry. These days, I probably feel more remorse and shame for voting for him than Spitzer feels about his staggering hypocrisy in prosecuting prostitution rings as New York attorney general and patronizing them as governor. Spitzer's downfall was less about sex than about the betrayal of public trust.
Now CNN is pairing Spitzer in prime time with conservative newspaper columnist Kathleen Parker, matching a Pulitzer Prize winner with a Prostitution Prize winner. Nothing cable TV news does these days in its bottom-feeding race for ratings surprises me. Probably at this very moment some business channel is negotiating with the federal prison authorities to allow a certain convicted Ponzi schemer to host a show direct from his cell called "Investing the Bernie Way."
Just so there is no ambiguity: I would sooner tune into Al Jazeera in Arabic or a highlight reel of 1950s TV test patterns than to watch Eliot Spitzer pontificate on CNN. As the defrocked governor contemplates his political future, I should also stress that I would not vote for Spitzer again for any public office even if his only competition on the ballot were Boss Tweed and John Edwards.
My ire at Spitzer is partly triggered by the embarrassing record
of his hand-picked successor, David Paterson, an accidental governor who put the "hap" in "hapless." Whether helping his former driver (now a trusted aide) try to wiggle out of an accusation of domestic violence or presiding passively throughout a budget crisis, Paterson has made New York almost as much of a state-government laughingstock as Illinois (Rod Blagojevich) or South Carolina (Mark Sanford). Spitzer's legacy: A new poll
found that 83 percent of New York voters label the state government as "dysfunctional."
But Spitzer's larger sin (and I do not use this word accidentally) lies in his zealous obsession with instant rehabilitation. If public humiliation becomes a temporary inconvenience that quickly morphs into a prime-time TV slot, it undermines all social sanctions against bad behavior. Even Richard Nixon grudgingly recognized that a decent society requires a decent interval before a disgraced political leader can dream of resurrection. Compared to Spitzer, Nixon was a slacker in the comeback department.
Maybe it is the permissive era in which we live or maybe it is true that socially well-connected Democrats get more second chances, but the reality is that Spitzer has been blessed with an army of well-connected enablers. The editors of Slate and Newsweek sought him out as a commentator while MSNBC and CNN provided him with on-air pundit training.
The Spitzer fan club (which, if there were any justice in this world, would be meeting in a dank basement in Queens) can get gooey. As feminist author Naomi Wolf
told the New York Observer in a cloying e-mail: "I think Spitzer is incredibly smart, he was a brave and devoted public servant, and I think we are lucky to have his contribution in any arena he chooses to engage."
I may be prissy in my old-fashioned faith that penance is mightier than the sword, or (in Spitzer's case), the swordsman. After he was caught up in a 1960s call-girl scandal
, British politician John Profumo devoted the remainder of his life to quiet charitable good works in London. In today's forgive-all culture, Profumo would have been rewarded with his own reality TV show featuring him working incognito in a settlement house.
Maybe the best hope for those of us who still believe in societal retribution is that Eliot Spitzer has just signed on with CNN, the after-thought network. Nothing else CNN has tried in prime time has worked, so why should we immediately assume that cynically embracing Spitzer represents the path to ratings gold? Of course, if Spitzer becomes the Glenn Beck of the left (a truly chilling notion), then ambitious politicians all over America may start vying to become Client No. 10.