Trust Me, I am Elliot Spitzer

In the United States just now, the nation’s attention has been briefly diverted from Clinton, Obama and Britney to its latest sex scandal, courtesy of New York State governor Eliot Spitzer.

Let’s get past the late-night talk show punch lines and juicy details. It’s not the details that are fascinating, it’s who they are happening to. So, what is it that makes all-Spitzer-all-the-time so compelling, at least for this 15 minutes?

Two things. The first is hypocrisy. The two most trust-destroying words one can say are, “trust me.” Because—unless it’s said to a child who needs rescuing from a burning bridge—it reeks of self-interest. And trust is supposed to be free of such things. We trust others precisely because we believe they have our interests at heart. To demand such a thing (via the imperative voice) is counter to the nature of the thing being demanded. (Variations include “love me or I’ll hate you,” and “the beatings will continue until morale improves”).

Hypocrites are those who invite the trust-test, and who then are seen to fail. They bring it on themselves. A Ted Haggard, a Jimmy Swaggart—these are “men of god” who preach against various sins. When they are found to be guilty of the same sins, it’s big news. As it is with Spitzer, who declaimed against illegality in tones we normally associate with the religious.

Hypocrisy is related to integrity. Integrity means “whole,” as in consistency, completeness, of one integral piece. Hypocrisy is about saying one thing and doing another. It is brokenness plus brazenness—it is “trust me” writ large on the political stage, reminiscent of Gary Hart’s invitation to check up on him. We did, and he failed.

But there’s an issue beyond integrity that Spitzer’s case brings to mind. It is the occasional tragi-comic split between the human brain and the human heart. It is the way of the law vs. the way of the polis—politics in the good sense of the word. When those two clash—it’s must-see TV.

Herman Melville’s other great book was Billy Budd; the tale of a naïve innocent, who in a moment of passion did a good thing—which turned out to have horrible consequences. Like Huck Finn from later in the same century, Billy Budd was willing to lead society’s charge against himself—to accept the punishment that society would mete out based on the consequences of his actions.

The power of the two portrayals is that we see the contradiction between the desire for the rule of law, and the absurd cases where that desire falls miserably short of what we know to be right in some broader, human sense.

Spitzer uttered the tersest of statements: “"I have acted in a way that violated the obligations to my family and that violate my, or any, sense of right and wrong. I have disappointed and failed to live up to the standard that I expect of myself."

Contrast that with Andy Pettite’s statement recently about his involvement in steroid usage in baseball. The truth shall set you free, said Pettite. “I’ve made some mistakes, and I’ve admitted to them. However people want to handle that, that’s how they handle it. I can’t change everybody’s opinion or what they’re going to think of me and how they’re going feel about me.”

Pettite is no longer in the news because he integrated his personal statement with the law. He’ll accept whatever comes down the pike, from the law and from public opinion. Conflict over. As his teammate Joe Girardi said, “”With Andy, you pretty much know how he’s doing.”

Not so with Spitzer. As I write this, Spitzer is approaching 48 hours holed up in his 5th Avenue apartment, apparently trying to figure out his legal options.

His legal options. Indeed.

His training as a lawyer is serving him badly. The big issue facing him is not legal—the Mann act, money laundering et al. It is whether or not yet another public figure can sort out how to integrate the life of the law (the brain) with the law of the heart (politics, morality, public life).

So far, he’s flunking that test miserably.