It is bitterly disappointing on so many levels when a hero develops feet of clay â€” or, in Eliot Spitzer’s case, a penis of clay.
The rawness of my chagrin and dismay is difficult to express. But it begins with covering Massachusetts politics as a journalist in the ’70s and ’80s. My newsroom godfather taught me to be skeptical of politicians. Always ask, Neil said, about the motives for their actions. Is it fame? Is it power? Is it access? Is it because we can? Is it because we won’t get caught? The motive rarely seemed to be because it will benefit my constituents, not me.
I know my attitude expresses cynicism far more than skepticism. But Gov. Spitzer began to smell more like a dead cod at low tide long before Client No. 9 needed to purchase the professional attentions of a young woman named Kristen to fully erect his ego.
I had watched the career of Gov. Spitzer for more than decade, having become a resident of New York state. Despite my experience in the thick canine drool that is Massachusetts politics, I admired Gov. Spitzer. He was canonized by most of the press because his motive seemed to be because it will benefit my constituents, not me.
Gov. Spitzer caught bad guys. He fought powerful special interests. And he won. He wore Superman’s cape; he carried Excalibur; he strapped on John Wayne’s six-shooters. He represented change that helped me. He made me hope that in the tarpit morass that modern politics has become an individual can rise above self-interest and serve for service’s sake.
But along came Troopergate and other political shenanigans in the governor’s office. The blush began to flee the rose.
When I left journalism for doctoral work in 1990, I took with me a fundamental and powerful antipathy toward politics. But in 1991, Paul Tsongas, a former Massachusetts senator, decided to run for president. I had interviewed the senator several times. We kept in touch because we both shared a passion â€” distance swimming. I liked Sen. Tsongas, even though I disliked his neoliberal positions on economics â€” and told him so. But I trusted him to be forthright, fair and honest.
In an 1991 interview, Sen. Tsongas spoke of his “obligation” as a cancer survivor:
It is going to sound kind of syrupy but I survived. And there is an obligation of that survival. If there was somebody else who thought the way that I did, who has had the experience that I have had, if a Bill Bradley, for example, had run I would have supported it. But I honestly believe, as strange perhaps as it may sound, I know what this country has to do and where we have to go to avoid the economic decline that I experienced as a child. So what am I supposed to do? Sit back in Lowell, Massachusetts, make my money as a lawyer, protect my family, and say well the rest of you are on your on. I think I went through a lot, and I have an obligation back and that is what I see myself doing. That is what my family sees me doing. And I know that may sound unusual in the Washington context but that is how I feel.
I called his campaign office to volunteer to do whatever he wished while I was in Colorado. The aide who answered the phone said, “Hold on a minute.” A few seconds later Sen. Tsongas came on the phone to thank me himself.
Paul Tsongas was a decent man and public servant. I believed in Paul Tsongas even though I had significant policy differences with him. His attitude toward service made him my hero. He worked for me and us. Sadly, he did not sound-bite well on television, and Bill Clinton became the Democratic nominee. Sen. Tsongas died of cancer in January 1997.
If you are human, you seek out heroes. They motivate you. They inspire you. They make you want to be better.
And they fail you.
That’s what pubic servant Gov. Spitzer did to me when he forked over $4,300 to a prostitute.
You can bet your bottom dollar I’ll take a hard look at any politician who ever again tries to sell me hope.