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.

6 replies
  1. Mark Slatin
    Mark Slatin says:

    Right on Charlie!  I can’t help but think that Mr. Spitzer is still negotiating a deal with the authorities to minimize his penalty.  I didn’t see Andy Petitte apologize, but something was missing from Elliott Spitzer’s statement.  Perhaps that’s it … it felt like a statement; absent any emotion that I could see.  

    Take note: we’re about  to see the  high cost of broken trust unravel.  How sad.

  2. Charles H. Green
    Charles H. Green says:

    Thanks Mark, I also thought the tone was flat, and it does leave something on the table.

    For another take on this, no one wields a scalpel on his own psyche better than Phil McGee. Check out his posting Hypocrisy. And as usual, Phil’s psyche turns out to be Everyman’s.

    Finally, a fine piece by Scott Greenfield on the Aftermath.

  3. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:


    A textbook case of how to do it right.  Do you think there’s a gene that accrues only to Canadians?  Or something in the Labatt’s up there? 

    Else how to explain the continued inability of politicians south of a line roughly from Vancouver to St. John’s to get this concept?

  4. Shaula
    Shaula says:

    Charlie, if it’s something in the beer, my money is on Molson’s over Labatt’s. 

    Have you caught the breaking news about Elliot Spitzer? (The article’s behind a firewall; get NYT login info here.)

    Shorter version: there are no indictable offenses, no charges are being filed, and it was a political hit job.

    (FDL has a good outline of the political assassination angle.)

    I am disappointed in the choices that Spitzer made, and that he stupidly gave his political enemies the opportunity to cut short the political career of a brilliant public servant.  His hypocracy doesn’t bother me so much as his short-sightedness in making choices that allowed this situation to happen.

    MLK had affairs, Ghandi beat his wife…we would like our public figures and our heroes to be perfect and very consistently they are NOT.

    I may be acting particularly Canadian* with this line of thought, but I really don’t care what public figures do in their own or anyone else’s bedroom, just as I want them to stay the hell out of mine.  (*We really didn’t care about the affair between PM Pierre Trudeau’s wife and Ted Kennedy, for example; it’s none of our business.)

    I’m hiring them to do jobs, not be demi-gods.  If they are great human beings in addition, I’ll take that as a huge bonus.  But I’ll take a highly effective politican (who may or may not be a bastard) over a perfectly nice but ineffective person any day. 

    I have wondered for a long time if Americans feel a collective need to elevate random people onto pedestals (politicans, pop figures, non-talented celebrities a la Paris Hilton) to fill the void left by losing the British Monarchy….

  5. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    Of course, that’s it!  Monarchy envy!  Well it makes as much sense as any other hypothesis. I personally am not neutral, but rather a little suspicious of the sqeaky clean types who brag about their modesty.  We’ve seen enough instances to sniff hypocrisy.


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