Thursday, March 13, 2008

Spitzer, Clinton, and the New Political Morality

Hugh Hewitt has a new column up on whether Spitzer's or Clinton's conduct was more reprehensible. He based his analysis on opinions garnered from his listening audience, who apparently voted 60-40 that Clinton, not Spitzer, was Heel Numero Uno.

Spitzer's only saving grace, if one may call it that, was the fact that he resigned; something the former President would never do. In fact, Clinton never really even tried to show any contrition about the entire episode. He would spend the remainder of his time in office blasting right-wing conservatives and the media for making him the subject of a "witch-hunt." Any contrition, we were given to understand, was directed toward Hillary, who was probably more furious that he got caught than that he was somehow unfaithful.

Depending on whom you believe, Hillary had long since understood that Clinton was trying to cast himself in the same vein as his political hero, John F. Kennedy. Faithlessness in a political marriage was implied in the contract. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that it was stated in the wedding ceremony. "Do you take this woman (not necessarily exclusively)...?" Kennedy's womanizing, however, didn't really come under the public's scrutiny until years after his assassination. Those closest to him, especially the women, never talked and the Kennedy-idolizing press were complicit in their non-reporting of the late President's clandestine activities.

Clinton, on the other hand, was hounded by allegations of inappropriate behavior while still on the campaign trail. The exposure of his liaison with Lewinsky was gleefully exposed and reported by Matt Drudge, and Web-Exclusive-Chic became the order of the day. But Hillary, as had Jacqueline Kennedy before her, had accepted the idea that power had its price, and she was willing to ante up. Somehow, the ideas were more important than the vessel in which they were kept.

This, then, becomes the latest version of Political Morality (or, more correctly, Political Amorality). Its practice is as old as politics itself. We are taught, from our youth, that politicians will say one thing and do another. A classic case of the hypocracies of those who seek to lead. I knew, before leaving junior high school, that politicians were never to be fully trusted.

Even those who may be considered "honorable" are only acceptable to humankind if they support humanity's pet issues. If not, then no matter how honorable the politician, they are useless to those with whom they do not agree. Nor will the public ever condescend to recognize the honorable among the opposition, except in case of death. When an honorable politician (perhaps one of the last great oxymorons) dies, then we honor their memory with recognition of their integrity or willingness to see both sides of an argument. But while that politician lives, so long as they continue to support an issue with which you vehemently disagree, they may as well book their seat on Charon's ferry across the river Styx.

At some point in the reporting of Spitzer's downfall, a comment was made that there was consideration of attempting to stay on as Governor because the issues he supported were still important, as were his plans for pursuing them. Reference, again, to the ideas being more important than the vessel. But the problem is that, whatever his personal morals, Spitzer became tainted goods for flaunting the very laws for which he himself had prosecuted (and ruined) countless others. Perhaps he did not have a legion of women who complained about his treatment of them, as Clinton did. Who knows? It's early yet, and the media are just getting revved up on this story. Perhaps information will magically "leak out" about past philanderings and stories of molest or abuse. Even if that proves not to be the case, however, Spitzer has committed one of the cardinal sins of politicians: Thou shalt not get caught committing the same crimes on which you have based your career in prosecuting others.

Clinton's sins were based entirely on the arrogance of his political self-image. Whatever other shady dealings he may have participated in (anyone remember Whitewater?), his peccadilloes were well known to the entire electorate by his second term in office. He did not sin ignorantly; he sinned to scratch an itch, then shrugged it off in that "good ol' boy" way that was uniquely his.

Spitzer's problem was that he had carefully packaged himself as a titan prosecutor; the Elliott Ness of the new millenium who would fearlessly confront vice and corruption in any form. To be ultimately found guilty of vice and corruption himself means that his punishments — and there are no guarantees that he may somehow avoid them — will be that much more poignant and exquisite. Can you imagine Spitzer ending up in the same prison with any former power-brokers whose lives he may have ruined? I'm guessing Mr. Spitzer can, and I'm guessing it will keep him up nights for awhile to come.

The notion that ideas somehow must survive the bearers tends to create a form of rationalization that endangers all of our political entities. The media, although theoretically apolitical (hah!), is not above the definition of a political entity. Witness Dan Rather and CBS News' fall from grace. The idea that falsification of evidence to "prove" President Bush's alleged past indiscretions was somehow justified was a theme on which Rather and his producers based their entire defense. The message was correct! It was only the evidence that was false! We must be believed because we are the bearers of the truth in this process! Their demise was inevitable.

The lesson is here to be learned. One wonders if any other career political apologists are watching and modifying their strategies for survival even now. They must be realizing that someone, somewhere, is catching on to their duplicitous activities and are just waiting for the proper moment to spring the trap.

Please note that I do not confine myself to Democrats in this indictment. Certainly there have been plenty of those on the right side of the political spectrum who have failed the "idea is more important than the vessel" test. Spectacularly. Religious leaders. Politicians. Athletes. Educators. There may yet be heroes on both sides of the aisle, but we also know that there are still villains aplenty.

Beware the modern vessel of the social or political mandate. It might just shatter.

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