Earlier today, MSNBC’s Morning Joe program provided a public service when it supplied us with an answer to the question that had been bothering me for the last day: why is it that the liberal political and media establishment is so unwilling to give one of their own a second chance? Given an opportunity to sell a national audience on his quest for personal redemption and a renewed political career, former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer talked about his regrets about his hubris as well as his desire to return to public service by running to be controller of New York City. But not satisfied with that, Spitzer felt the need to eschew the intellectual arguments for his return to the public eye and tried for some emotion. When asked how he had changed in the years since he crashed and burned in the midst of his prostitution scandal, Spitzer attempted to manufacture some tears when speaking about “the pain” he had gone through. But, like his brief term as governor that was disrupted by out-of-control behavior that involved both public and private misconduct, the effort was a failure. No tears fell.
It was the sort of transparently false and feeble performance that has killed many a theatrical career but it also may have provided something of an explanation as to why the same liberal organs that once lionized Spitzer are now determined to thwart his comeback bid. Hypocrisy is a common failing among the chattering classes—especially its liberal battalion—but chutzpah on this scale in which a fallen pol seeks to use money and celebrity to reclaim his hold on power appears to be a bridge too far for most of them. That was shown today as the New York Times responded to Spitzer’s assault on the electorate with a two-pronged counter-attack. A front-page feature highlighted the dismay of the city’s liberal elites about his candidacy as well as the disgust of labor unions and the business community, and was echoed by a scathing editorial. The editorial made it clear that unlike the equivocal if not largely favorable response to fellow reformed miscreant Anthony Weiner’s comeback attempt, the Times and its main constituencies were prepared to stop at nothing to derail him. The would-be redeemed sinner’s chutzpah is simply too much to take even for the Times. Everybody, it seems, hates Eliot Spitzer.
The Times editorial was remarkable in a number of respects. For an editorial column that has seemed to pride itself in recent years on unrelieved stuffiness and terminal pomposity, the paper’s willingness to cut loose on Spitzer in this manner was as refreshing as it was unexpected. The piece lambasted Spitzer and Weiner as “charter members of the Kardashian Party,” who seek to use their notoriety as “the quick, easy path to redemption.” It even referred to Spitzer as “Client 9”—the infamous codename for the former governor used by the prostitution establishment that he patronized—an astonishing breach of the paper’s normally highfalutin tone. Honestly, I didn’t know they had it in them. Spitzer’s odious character is apparently enough to cause even the most hidebound liberal talking shop to lose their cool.
To the Times’s credit, the paper rightly noted (as our John Steele Gordon did yesterday) that his predilection for purchasing illicit sex wasn’t the only thing wrong with Spitzer when he was forced to resign. The lying and the cheating (as well as the illegal money laundering methods he employed to hide his rather extravagant payments to the “escort” service) about sex was bad. But it was not as awful as what he did in Albany as the self-described “steamroller,” which alienated allies as well as opponents. The reason his sexual transgression resonated with so many people is that it seemed of a piece with everything else he did. It made sense that a man who acted like a thug and bully in public would feel the need to purchase women whom he could command in that manner.
Along with Weiner, Spitzer has condemned New York to what the Times rightly calls “a summer of farce” in which their personal quest for ego gratification after being deprived of the attention they crave will overshadow discussion of the issues. No doubt we will have more fake tears from Spitzer as well as more tedious attempts from the former governor to portray himself as the solution to New York’s problems rather than the embodiment of the cancer eating away at our public life.
I don’t know whether the revulsion toward Spitzer on the part of so many liberal elites will be enough to offset his advantage in name recognition and money stemming from his family’s vast personal fortune. Perhaps, as the Times editorial seems to indicate, there is a growing recognition that the Bill Clinton paradigm of giving politicians a pass for misconduct undermines public ethics. All of us are flawed and Americans love the idea of second chances, but we also know that it isn’t too much to ask those entrusted with high public office to behave themselves or to ask them to stay out of the limelight when they cannot. But whether or not Spitzer or even Weiner can be stopped, it is a sign of health in our political culture that so many who might have once been counted on to give them a pass in the name of solidarity with liberal stalwarts are no longer willing to silently acquiesce to this sordid circus.