On the Meteoric Fall of Elliot Spitzer

Tuesday, March 4, 2008
Special to the Jewish Week

What are we to make of Elliot Spitzer’s dramatic fall from grace? How can it be that the man who was swept into office by a record plurality of votes, running as the Mr. Clean who “judged every decision before him simply on the basis of whether it was right or wrong,” as one of his campaign ads suggested, could be so very, very wrong on so basic a principle?

The answer, I’m afraid, is simple. It “could be” because, without the trappings of power, the bodyguards, the swashbuckling political persona, and the political packaging, Elliot Spitzer is a man.

A human being. All of us- myself very much included- were shocked by what we learned about his private life because we had bought into the packaged myth of his public persona. It was exactly as he and his handlers had orchestrated it. We didn’t know Elliot Spitzer the man. We knew Elliot Spitzer the myth, the square-jawed, unflinching crusader for the common man against those who would exploit us. We knew the myth, we bought into the myth precisely as it was packaged, and we voted for it in record numbers. And now that the myth has, to our horror, been shown to be a myth, we are shocked and dismayed.

We really shouldn’t be. But we are, because we, too, are human, and we, too, want to believe in those who would claim to be better than we are.

The Elliot Spitzer that we thought we knew was presented to us as a family man. He has what by all external appearances are a lovely wife, and three charming daughters. But the sad truth would appear to be other that the packaged image.

I don’t doubt that he loves his daughters, and maybe even his wife. And they probably are lovely. But the life that he was living in secret was in such dissonance with the packaged image that it leaves us stunned. How could it be that the man in those beautiful family portraits is the same one who paid thousands of dollars over the years for the services of prostitutes?

It could be about power. In my seminar on professional skills for graduating rabbis and cantors at the Jewish Theological Seminary, I remind my students as often as I can about the nature of power, and how to use it wisely. Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac. It can make you feel invulnerable and untouchable, and can be as intoxicating as any drink or drug. Maybe, just maybe, those extramarital trysts were about power. “Because he could,” so to speak.

Or it could be about a pathological addiction to a particular kind of sex. That, too, is possible. It brings to mind the adage about so many people living lives of quiet desperation. There are surely many more people than Elliot Spitzer living ostensibly “straight lives” despite the fact that their sexual orientation is other, and their needs cannot be met in conventional relationships.

The bottom line is that we don’t know, we probably will never know, and it only arguably matters for us to know. Whatever Elliot Spitzer’s demons are, it is he who must confront them. And as far as I am concerned, I am far less disturbed for the body politic of the state of New York than I am for his wife and his daughters, whose agony I can only imagine.

The whole thing is a horror. I’m grateful for his resignation, and I pray for him and his family. The state will certainly survive. I hope they do.

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