Not surprisingly, Eliot Spitzer did resign today as Governor of New York, ,effective Monday. There is lots and lots of pundit commentary on this today (see Memeorandum). I’m sorry for his family, and I’m glad he did the right thing.
A coworker of mine made a good observation. He said, it seems as time goes on, we are becoming more and more intolerant of bad behavior. Not that it should be okay to engage in illicit sexual activity, but there was a time when bad behavior on the part of politicians was treated with more of a “boys will be boys” kind of mentality. His question to me today was, “What’s changed since Bill Clinton?”, alluding to the fact that Clinton brazenly behaved very badly and suffered little consequence. And truly, before Nixon, most men in power got away with worse behavior than (we know about) today (reference what we think we know now about JFK’s hanky-pankying).
Good question, and there’s some things to be said about that.
First of all, there are some similarities and some differences between Clinton and Spitzer to consider. What Clinton did with Lewinski was definitely bad, but not impeachable, not any reason to resign. For that offense (against his wife, really), I think most Americans (as disgusted as we may be by it) would forgive. Amazingly, what he did after that should have been reason to resign or be impeached, and that was to look the American people in the eye and lie through his teeth about it. A President needs to be in a position to withhold the truth, or even deceive if necessary, when national security is at stake, but that was plainly not the case here and to this day it amazes me that so many people actually think it didn’t matter that he did that.
The offense regarding sex is essentially the same between the two men (although I assume a solicitation charge could be in order), and I commend the Governor for having the intelligence not to try and lie his way around it. However, there is clearly more to this story than just a governor buying sex. We don’t know the whole story yet, but the investigation around this appears to involve money laundering which puts us in the position of not knowing just what laws were actually broken. And as that story unfolds, it will be impossible for Spitzer to govern without significant distraction, and I commend him for not putting his state through the turmoil of a political circus that would make him impotent to represent and govern New York. But the grace I would afford him will end there, as I am confident the next few months will reveal a pattern of deception and potentially unanticipated corruption… and the fact that the corruption and potential list of broken laws are all wrapped around this revelation about his involvement with a prostitute is what makes this different from the Clinton affair. Any alleged corruption on Bill’s part was never tied to the Lewinsky entanglement.
So why do we focus so much more now on these types of behaviors? Here’s my current list of reasons:
- We want to believe that one person or party is fundamentally better than the other. That is, less likely to be corrupt, stronger convictions, better integrity, more steadfast character. And the only way to really demonstrate that is to unwind the threads of the opposition. Regardless, I think integrity and character matter a great deal, I just want to be sure that everyone is measured with the same ruler. Which is a challenge because we have become much more diverse in our ideas of where the line is.
- We have become much more attentive to the fact that sex can be used as a means to intimidate others. I don’t think anyone believes it is right to hold this kind of power over another in any setting, and as sexual harassment sensitivity and training become more prevalent in corporate America, we have started developing some good sense of right and wrong when it comes to using sex as a power ploy.
- We have become much more attentive to the fact that any kind of “deviant” behavior (again, an expression has varying degrees of definition) can also be a sign of potential darkness in areas that we simply don’t tolerate, such as child molestation. If Lewinsky had been a teenage intern, I think it’s highly likely Bill would have been forced to retire early. We don’t want another Mark Foley. And this as it should be.
This new sense of seriousness could be a great sign. I hope it means something good about our society, maybe we’re not on the road to ruin.
Hat tip to BitHead .