March 13, 2008
Power corrupts in the most fascinating ways. The one I like best is the Evil Twin.
Why everyone got so worked up over Bill Clinton’s philandering is hard to understand, except for political reasons. He was just a good ole country boy with a huge appetite for everything, women included. It was part of his nature. We all knew when we elected him that he was hardly unimpeachable, so when he was officially impeached — not for having sex but for defining it — it looked more like a grudge-match by those opponents he had so often outsmarted. And the most delicious irony of all came from those several snarling watchdogs of public morality, including alpha-dog Newt Gingrich, whose own sexual improprieties were unmasked in the process.
New York Governor Eliot Spitzer is another case entirely. He runs in the line of televangelists like Jim Bakker and the aptly-named Jimmy Swaggart, and all those pedophile pastors and toilet-stall congressmen who preach "family values" without a grain of compassion for fallen human nature, only to become the objects of their own rants.
I saw Spitzer’s downfall coming long ago, though I never thought it would happen the way it did. I figured the electorate would be so sick of four years of the man’s sour self-righteousness that they’d throw him out on his ear the next time around. After just a year in office, his approval rating had dropped from near unanimous to around 30 percent; we knew we’d elected a lemon.
Over the span of a decade, Spitzer had made a name for himself both statewide and nationally as an activist attorney general, hammering the Big Guys of business and Wall Street for fraud, price-fixing, and environmental pollution, fearlessly going where federal officials were afraid to tread. Simultaneously, he consciously cultivated an image of devoted spouse and father. Every Christmas, I and a million others would receive a homey holiday card with best wishes and a lovely family photo. Over years of these cards, we watched his three beautiful daughters grow up. The Spitzers became part of our own families.
But those cards struck me as self-serving: He was nurturing the public for a step to higher office.
When he ran for governor in 2006, the magic worked. Virtually everybody in the state admired, even adored, him. He won the Democratic primary overwhelmingly, and for the general election, the hangdog Republicans offered up an unknown former state assemblyman, John Faso, as little more than fresh meat, despite the enduring respect and relative popularity of the retiring Republican governor, George Pataki. Spitzer won decisively, with 69% of the vote.
But good prosecutors seldom make good executives — the skill-set is different. As a governor, you can’t go after people, you have to work with them. He’d promised the public to "change the culture" of the often-immobilized, in-the-pocket state legislature, but right from the start his manipulative tactics of overstepping political decorum — "I’m a fucking steamroller," he is reported to have said early in his tenure — alienated even his Democratic allies. In the state legislature he’d met a collective opponent much different from all those insurance and entertainment companies he’d dispatched so handily as attorney general — and they wouldn’t budge.
After just a year in office, Spitzer’s demeanor had gotten under the skin of most New Yorkers, and the man that New Mexico governor Bill Richardson once toasted as "the future of the Democratic party" was becoming political toast himself. He began apologizing for his abrasiveness and claimed to seek a more collaborative approach, but the citizens, who’d come to expect colorfulness (or failing that, colorlessness) in their governors were already weary of him and eager to see him gone.
Most observers thought he would just sputter out, locked in the petty imbroglios of Albany. Nobody thought he would go down in flames.
But we should have known. Spitzer is the stuff of Homer and Shakespeare, the man of overweening pride ensnared in his own net. The revelations of this week are a thing of grotesque beauty and symmetry. As attorney general he had prosecuted several high-end prostitution rings with the same fervor he applied to big business. And now, as "Client 9" of the Emperors Club VIP, he was caught on a government wire-tap, the object of aggressive investigative techniques much like his own.
Spitzer’s is the real-life case of the classic literary character, the Doppelganger, the Double. Most of us lead lives of muddled morality — a little good here, a little bad there. We realistically come to see ourselves and others as both graced and flawed. But those who crusade for absolute moral rectitude, the perfectionists who demand from others the perfection they see in themselves, walk with the shadow of absolute moral depravity by their side. It is a kind of psychological antimatter, the Black Hole of the soul, the death-wish.
If there weren’t enough evidence from the state of the world at large, the fall of Eliot Spitzer might convince you of the existence of Satan.