One Man, Alone; One Not So

Eliot Spitzer and Barack Obama reveal sharply divergent attitudes toward human community. Which one do Americans really want … or understand?

[1] Don’t get me wrong. What Eliot Spitzer did is reprehensible. But my first reaction to the scandal was not, “throw the bum out.”

[2] The former New York governor climbed the political ladder as “the sheriff of Wall Street,” prosecuting financial fraud and crusading against prostitution. He had a reputation as a boorish bully for whom moral ambiguity was anathema. Cheers rose from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange when the story of his downfall broke.

[3] Spitzer had consorted with high-priced hookers, launching the scribbling class into frenzied head-scratching: How did a world-class former prosecutor, with extensive knowledge of wire-taps and banking laws, get swept up in the easily-detectable financial schemes he used to pay for prostitution? Hubris was the universal verdict of TV talking heads.

[4] But my first response was to bemoan that another politician was getting forced from office because of sexual behavior that had little to do with how well (or poorly) he was performing public duties. This was reinforced by comments from two friends, both New Yorkers, who praised Spitzer’s contributions to their state.

[5] The outcome of the case was certain well before Spitzer stepped to the microphones and resigned. Press commentators seemed unable or unwilling to stop the rush to judgment long enough to ask: Is it possible to retain effective public servants in office despite their zipper problems? Does assessment of communal good have no role in the moral calculus used to decide whether men behaving badly should stay or go?

[6] The gleeful cackling that accompanied Spitzer’s downfall leaves little question about the answers. When the mighty and (in this case) moralistic fall, lesser mortals tend to be happy about it. And few are capable of asking what the body politic might be losing.

[7] This said, I’m glad Spitzer has departed office. We are better off with him gone but for reasons that have little do with libido, financial crimes or unbridled hubris. A deeper flaw has to do with his devaluing and cynical manipulation of the bonds of human community. These bonds keep us connected and truly human, inhibiting the behaviors that led to Spitzer’s spectacular fall.

[8] It is troubling that, as Spitzer fades from public view, many Americans are tacitly endorsing an attitude toward community quite like Spitzer’s posture, as they criticize Barack Obama for his pastor problem. More on that in a moment.

One Man, Alone
[9] Standing by her husband as he resigned, Silda Wall Spitzer’s stoic face couldn’t hide her stricken sadness at her husband’s betrayal. Her moment before the cameras echoes another sad episode nine years before. Hank Sheinkopf is a Democratic Party consultant who worked on two of Spitzer’s political campaigns. In the March 24, 2008 issue of Time magazine, Sheinkopf recalls a moment in the 1998 attorney general campaign. Spitzer was forced to acknowledge using his father’s considerable wealth to help finance his campaign (Time, March 24, 2008, page 24).

[10] Spitzer had denied the truth until it became impossible to maintain the falsehood. He was forced to admit the obvious. “I looked over and saw this man, … holding himself in the corner,” Sheinkopf said. “I thought, This must be the loneliest man on the planet. And in fact, he turned out to be.”

[11] Spitzer had been denying connection with his father for the sake of personal ambition–and to avoid the scrutiny of campaign finance laws. Acknowledging dependence upon his father’s money didn’t serve his alpha male image as he sought to stand alone, above the needs and rules others must observe.

[12] His use of Silda, his wife, reveals similar cynicism. As Spitzer announced his resignation, she stood grim and shell-shocked beside him, just like a parade of other political wives who have been trotted before the cameras as their husbands owned up to bad behavior.

[13] In recent years, the well-scripted ritual has played out so often that we know what to expect: A disgraced public figure, always male, stands at a microphone, while his spouse impassively stares at his notes or into blank space. The intended impact, it appears, is to mitigate the shame of the fallen, to silently say, “I support him. I stand with him. Don’t think too harshly of him.” It’s a sham, of course, as later interviews with some of these wives painfully reveal.

[14] In Spitzer’s case, the parade to the cameras represented a cynical manipulation of his marriage for personal gain, or at least to minimize personal loss. His recent career included well-documented bellicose explosions and intimidation directed toward political opponents whom he threatened to crush. How ironic, then, that this alpha male should reach for communal, familial imagery in his disgrace.

[15] Had he wanted to show love and respect for his family he would have faced the cameras alone–and kept his pants on. But for Spitzer (and too many before him), family and community exist to be used. They are social capital, a commodity, for personal benefit and can be ignored or denied when they get in the way of status and ambition. The humanizing tendrils of community life are not revered as essential elements of human existence.

One Man, Not So Alone
[16] This is lost in the current conversation about Barack Obama’s pastor problem. The presidential candidate unequivocally denounced his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, for the “profoundly distorted view of this country” evident in the cleric’s incendiary racial screed.

[17] Media attention continues to focus on why Obama does not disown his pastor and leave the congregation, if he really disagrees with Wright’s views. The question reduces Wright’s thought and far-reaching ministry to a few angry, anti-American statements, most of which can be accounted for by the hyperbolic excesses of preaching to the choir combined with historically-justified black resentment over racial oppression.

[18]Letter writers to major U.S. dailies attack Obama for not separating himself from the church long ago to distance himself from Wright’s views. But the thought implicit in many of these notes is reminiscent of Eliot Spitzer: When family and community don’t suit your ambitions, walk away. Human community is a commodity to be used, abused and tossed aside when it no longer serves larger purpose, as if there is one. In the current context, “larger purpose” typically means “personal ambitions.”

[19] In Obama’s case, the community is a congregation in which he found place of belonging in which to explore his identity as the son of an African father and a white mother from Kansas. It was a welcoming community into which he’d brought his intellectual curiosity and doubts about the faith. It was the community in which he was married and where his children were baptized.

[20] The congregation was and is much more than its pastor. It is a place to pray, praise, play, find support and companions with whom to serve the surrounding community.

[21] And when trouble came, threatening his candidacy, Obama didn’t walk away or disown the people who had loved and supported him and his family, however much he disagreed with Wright. For him, apparently, human community with all its messy flaws and imperfections is not a commodity to be used and tossed aside, but a place to stay and listen, to keep talking and try to build understanding. Unfortunately, his behavior is unusual in American public life where we long ago have come to expect public figures to cut and run when it is convenient.

[22] As the remainder of this election season plays out it is worth asking: Do we want leaders who cynically use or eschew human community for their ends, or those who refuse to walk from the room when the temperature rises?