For a country that Europeans like to patronize as hopelessly prissy (they think we’re “inhibited, puritanical, and immature,” Die Zeit reported last week), our ex-colonial republic has a talent for turning out politicians with exciting sex lives. The production line goes back at least as far as Hamilton and Jefferson, but it ramped up during the nineteen-seventies, when a long-sideburned, wide-lapelled knockoff of the nineteen-sixties caught up with Washington, and powerful congressmen with names like Wilbur Mills flaunted floozies with names like Fanne Foxe. An informal survey turns up a nice round number of nationally publicized, politician-generated sex scandals since then: fifty. Republicans were the principal players in most of them; a large majority involved members of Congress. The biggest romp of all, of course, featured a Democratic President, an intern, and a Republican impeachment. In the current Presidential campaign, the two remaining Democratic candidates, one of whom earned public sympathy for her spousal fortitude during that biggest romp, had their paths to the Senate cleared by other people’s sexual misadventures. In 2000, Hillary Clinton’s most formidable rival, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, was sidelined by several complications, including a spectacular affair that led to a noisy divorce and a scarcely less noisy remarriage. In 2004, Barack Obama caught a break when it emerged that his Republican opponent had taken his ex-wife, she claimed, to sex clubs in such fleshpots as New York, New Orleans, and Paris, where he tried to get her to perform with him in front of the other patrons. This year’s remaining Republican, John McCain, has had more direct brushes with Eros. His marriage to his first wife overlapped his courtship of his second, and, more recently, according to the Times, aides fretted that his relationship with a pretty lobbyist had grown suspiciously warm. And now there is—or, rather, isn’t—Eliot Spitzer, the newly minted former governor of the State of New York.
An alternative view of the matter is that the key variable is not the libidos of the politicians but the vigilance of the agencies, public and private, that keep a squinty eye on them. François Mitterrand got through twelve years as President of France without having to acknowledge that he had had two families all along. The new président de la République, Nicolas Sarkozy, has sailed through his exit from an apparently open marriage to a giddy romance with and wedding to an international supermodel without encountering any serious suggestions that any of it made him somehow unfit for office. By contrast, Bill Clinton’s trivial (and, it must be said, sad and ungallant) dalliance so shocked the conscience of the House of Representatives that its Republican majority resorted to a remedy that had not come to a vote since the immediate aftermath of the Civil War.
“Eliot Spitzer, one of the nation’s most gifted and dedicated politicians, was hounded into resignation by a Puritanism and mean-spiritedness that are quintessentially American,” Martha Nussbaum, the fearsomely distinguished (and quintessentially American) philosopher, ethicist, and professor at the University of Chicago Law School, wrote in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution op-ed after the Governor threw in the towel. She went on:
"My European colleagues (I write from an academic conference in Belgium) have a hard time understanding what happened, but they know that it is one of those things that could only happen in America, where the topic of sex drives otherwise reasonable people insane. In Germany and the Netherlands, prostitution is legal and regulated by public health authorities. A man who did what Spitzer did would have a lot to discuss with his wife and family, but he would have broken no laws, and it would be laughable to accuse him of a betrayal of the public trust. This is as it should be. If Spitzer broke any laws, they were bad laws, laws that should never have existed."
Whether or not Nussbaum’s indignation was sharpened by the company she was keeping, she has a point about the law. Like drug abuse, prostitution is a miserable business; a “victimless crime,” it surely has its victims. But our purely punitive approach to it, like our draconian drug regime, does little to discourage the activity it forbids and nothing to lessen the associated human suffering. Still, Americans are worldlier about sex than they used to be. Until the election of Ronald Reagan, even divorce was understood to be a disqualifier for anyone hoping to be President. Now it’s just a résumé item. And Bill Clinton’s popularity soared in tandem with his amorous embarrassments. His participation in his wife’s Presidential campaign has done far more damage to his reputation than his adulteries ever did.
Even so, there was no way that Governor Spitzer’s political career could survive the exposure of his secret life. Hypocrisy is not the worst of sins, but there is hypocrisy and there is hypocrisy. As New York’s crusading, extraordinarily effective attorney general, Spitzer investigated the same banks through which he allegedly laundered the money he used to pay for his trysts. He vigorously prosecuted prostitution rings of the type he patronized. And he pushed a bill—a good bill, on the whole—that shifted the balance of penalties for prostitution toward the buyer, which is to say toward himself. Signing that bill into law was one of the early acts of his governorship.
If Spitzer had been, say, a United States senator, he might have been able to hang on at least till the end of his term. That’s what Larry Craig and David Vitter, hypocrites of the first water, are doing; they have faded into the echoing hallways of the Capitol like guerrillas melting into a crowd of campesinos. It’s tougher for a chief executive; tougher still for a chief executive whose touchstone has been absolute rectitude; and toughest of all for a righteous chief executive at the media center of the world, whose loudest local papers are not the Kansas City Star or the Burlington Free Press or even the New York Times but the Daily News and the Post. The juicy details—“CLIENT NO. 9,” “ROOM 871,” “$80G FOR SEX”—are hard to ignore when they’re in block letters three inches high.
Spitzer’s first year as governor had been rocky at best, and his brutal style left him politically friendless. But he was beginning to learn the virtues of diplomacy, and in time he might have accomplished his admirable agenda: upgrading the state’s system of public higher education, putting legislative redistricting in neutral hands, expanding health care for children, and, more broadly, upending Albany’s culture of corruption and cronyism. Spitzer’s lieutenant governor and successor, David Paterson, sworn in this week, is an unusually interesting man. His qualities of mind and spirit promise to sustain him after the novelty of his color (he is only the third black governor of any state since Reconstruction) and his disability (he is the first legally blind governor of any state ever) wears off. He has, for the moment, the good wishes of all.