I first heard the news about Eliot Spitzer in the form of an e-mail from a friend. There was no link provided to a published news story, just the bare fact that the Governor New York was caught in some sort of prostitution sting operation. My initial reaction was that this was some kind of joke. Spitzer was probably the most successful law enforcer of my generation. And he was, from all appearances, happily married to the same woman for two decades. He would be the last person to get involved in a tawdry mess, right? Uh … guess not.
Typically, I don’t care too much about these much-hyped scandals, but this one is different. Spitzer, you see, is someone I’ve admired for quite some time, despite the fact that he’s symbolized my own sense of inadequacy. If you go to the Harvard Law School Class of ’84 yearbook, you’ll find his picture next to mine. He looks like an upstanding, clean cut young man; I look like a friggen terrorist (no exaggeration). But there we are, next to each other, and for years, the juxtaposition of the two faces has been a reminder that there are actually people in the Class of ’84 who have really made something of their lives.
Frequently, I look at celebrities and scoff at their contributions to society. What has Britney Spears meaningfully contributed? Or
Uh … guess not.
As I began devouring the news stories this week, I realized just how poorly I had understood this man. I’m not just talking about the “double life,” I’m talking about the extent of the machismo that he brought to his trade as a law enforcer. I don’t like bullies of any stripe, but I’m particularly offended when I see bullying in government. Those of us who are paid by taxpayer dollars should always be respectful of those who pay our freight and trust us with protecting their welfare. As regulators and law enforcers, once we start losing our humility, it’s time to start looking for another job.
The Elliot Spitzer I read about this week – the one who referred to himself as a “F___ing steamroller” – was probably better suited for a public defender’s job than that of a prosecutor. Utility aside, I want my prosecutors to be more gentle. But I will never deny Spitzer his accomplishments. The Wall Street of the 80s did get out of hand, and we probably needed a “F___ing steamroller” to shake things up and control the excesses. So, I’ll forgive Spitzer his own excesses and congratulate him for a job well done as Attorney General. What I can’t congratulate him for – what I can’t yet forgive him for – is what he did to the woman known to me as Silda Wall.
Silda was one of the first people I met in law school. She was the coordinator of my Orientation Group, or O-Group as it was commonly known. Back when I was at the law school, Harvard broke up its classes into four sections of about 135 students, and broke up each section into about 8 O-Groups. The purpose of the O-Group was to give 1-Ls an opportunity to meet one another in an environment other than those alienating, stifling classrooms that have become immortalized in movies like The Paper Chase. The members of each O-Group would have two or three get-togethers in the first semester of law school, and then would go on their merry ways. I don’t know whether this was customary or not, but several members of my O-Group became lifelong friends.
Every O-Group was coordinated by a 2-L or 3-L whose job it was not only to plan the events, but also to give us some sense of perspective about what was about to hit us at Harvard. I considered myself fortunate that our group was led by Silda Wall. She was clearly a breath of fresh air on that campus. In contrast to the typical uptight Harvard Law student, Silda was a nice, friendly girl-next-door type who hailed from
Silda must have taken a year off from school, because she ended up graduating in ’84 in the same class as me, Elliot, and my own wife, Kathy. Kathy and I were married 20 years ago, Silda and Elliot got married a year or two before that. I simply assumed that they were the ideal couple – filthy rich (thanks to Elliot’s parents), extraordinarily powerful, public spirited, and, presumably, very much in love.
This week, we all saw pictures of Silda standing by her man as he “accepted responsibility” for the misdeeds that he called “private.” Looking at those pictures, I was a jumble of emotions. Mostly, I was shocked. Somehow, this hero of mine had turned a beautiful woman into a portrait of despair – for that’s what she looked like, someone whose spirit had died. To a lesser degree, I was also angry. “How dare he do this?” I thought. “How dare he put his family through this humiliation? And once he got caught, how dare he create this ‘mug shot’ of his wife for all of us to remember?”
But those weren’t my only emotions. The next one was disgust – this time with Silda when I heard it said that she was the strongest voice who was discouraging him from resigning his position as Governor. That emotion went away quickly, however. I can only imagine what Silda is going through and how unbearable it must be simply to push herself out of bed and face the world every morning. I wouldn’t even begin to second-guess her judgment for another month or two when it comes to advising her husband on career moves. To those who condemn her for “standing by her man,” I only remind them of the old Indian adage – “Do not judge people until you have walked a mile in their moccasins.” I doubt you’ll find too many volunteers for Silda’s moccasins right now. What he did to her is unspeakable.
Most of the commentators who have looked at this situation have fixated on the concept of “hubris.” Another HLS classmate, the Washington Post Op-Ed writer Ruth Marcus, focused on Spitzer’s hubris in comparing him to a character from a Greek tragedy. True enough. But Marcus’ real point was that figures like Spitzer have been around for thousands of years, making the same kinds of awful mistakes. More specifically, powerful people have, time and again, decided that the rules of morality don’t apply to them and that – being omniscient as well as omnipotent – they’re too intelligent to get caught. It sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? That’s why Silda’s tragedy is Letterman’s comedy.
“Hubris” probably is the key word here. But, to me, “private” is a close second. Spitzer brushed off his responsibility to the public by saying that this was a “private” matter. And in doing so, he evoked memories of Monicagate, when one Democrat after another blasted the “vast right-wing conspiracy” by saying that the GOP was making a mountain out of a molehill, elevating the “private” matter of Bill Clinton’s sex life into a grave affair of state.
I don’t buy Spitzer’s “privacy” point now, and I didn’t buy it back in the 90s when it was cited on behalf of
Whenever a Bill Clinton or an Eliot Spitzer campaigns to be the head of state, he implicitly pledges that he will do nothing to undermine his ability to work for the best interests of his electorate. And that, in turn, means that he will never destroy his own credibility in the eyes of that electorate.
As he took office in the face of the Jennifer Flowers scandal, Bill Clinton knew that his sex life would be in the public sights. In his appearance with Hillary Clinton on 60 Minutes, he had all but assured us that he would behave, and many of us (stupidly) believed him. Then, when the Paula Jones suit was filed, he had to know that his sex life would be the subject of continued scrutiny. And still, even then, he took up with “that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” It was hubris, folks – pure, unadulterated hubris, just like his decision to stay in office afterwards. And just look at the results of that decision -- (1) the Iraq War (the margin of victory in the 2000 Election in Florida was surely provided by the distance that Gore felt he must place between himself and his boss), and (2) quite possibly, 9/11 (Clinton couldn’t afford to take decisive military action against Al Qaeda, lest he be accused of “wagging the dog” to take people’s minds off of Monica). So to those who say that they’re glad that
Elliot Spitzer, no doubt buying into the traditional Democratic Party B.S. that the