Where am I supposed to find another political hero?

It is bitterly disappointing on so many levels when a hero develops feet of clay — 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 — distance swimming. I liked Sen. Tsongas, even though I disliked his neoliberal positions on economics — 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.

12 replies »

  1. Denny,

    Simple question: How does Spitzer banging a prostitute invalidate any of the good work he has done?

    It doesn’t to me, except inasmuch as he campaigned hard against prostiution and sex trafficking, but we as people always find ourselves exempt from the restrictions we demand of others.

    It disappoints me to see you play so hard into such a conventional frame of mind–that you will be less disposed to believe in people, and consequently less keen to act. For someone with such a sharp mind and active ability to ferret out the truth, this is a shame.

    And just for the record, Spitzer should’ve stayed AG and never let his ambitions–and his appetites–get the better of him.

  2. Dr. Denny your last statement: “I’ll take a hard look at any politician who ever again tries to sell me hope” wouldn’t happen to have an underlying subtext given that the present democratic primary is being fought on the premise that “hope, change and good judgement” trump “experience” any day?

    Nobody can sell anybody “hope” Dr. Denny. That is what makes it such a powerful commodity. Hope lies within all of us. It is the last barrier between cynicism and self-annihilation. Let us be careful with the words we use, lest we lose that most ephemeral and powerful of feelings: “hope”.

  3. Better a role model than a heroe. For without doubt the feet of all are made from clay.

    I bet he didn’t ask whether she was in good mental health or ask her about her upbringing when he handed over the dollars.

    He should have bought himself a plastic dolly…

    …”The blush began to flee the rose.” Lovely line.

  4. I am a NY resident and posted a photo of a letter Spitzer wrote me in 2003 and vented my sentiments. I agree, in retrospect, that he should have stayed as the AG where he was more effective.

  5. I heard on NPR last night that Spitzer was taken down by banking transaction software that tracks sophisticated money laundering schemes and that identifies all politicians as people of interest (PEP, but I don’t remember what the acronym stands for) for closer scrutiny.

    And Spitzer himself had pushed hard for the very functionality in the software that tripped him up.

  6. It’s been a long time since I let myself hope. I’m an idealist in so many ways, but when it comes to politics I’m fine with my cynicism. Hard-edged pragmatism serves me well. If there are genuinely good people in the game I can work for them just as effectively this way – maybe more effectively, even.

  7. Martin,

    Simple answer: It doesn’t.

    Nothing in my post suggests his past record (as AG, at least) isn’t exemplary. I’m not writing about his accomplishments as flawed; rather, I’m writing about his character flaws, now revealed, that have disappointed many who believed him to be a hero to those whose voices are rarely heard or sought by government.

    As to whether I disappointed you in “play[ing] so hard into such a conventional frame of mind–that you will be less disposed to believe in people, and consequently less keen to act”: Your disappointment in my frame of mind means not a whit to me. My “conventional frame of mind” speaks for many bitterly disillusioned by Gov. Spitzer’s tumble.

    As to whether I’ll be “less keen to act”? I don’t know what that means. That’s apparently an assumption on your part. As for action, I have done so, in writing, since February of 2005, as a blogger. I have written hundreds of posts about politics, economics, campaign finance and issues relating to journalism — and will continue to do so. I will continue to agitate. I will continue to vote. I will continue to support all of us here at S&R who seek to carry the good fight forward.

    I will continue to teach young people how to think — to craft arguments based on sound reasoning and to stand against criticism.

    I have nothing to apologize for in my post. Your comment is appreciated, as they always are, but it carries too many assumptions framed from your point of view and too little knowledge of me.

  8. Thanks for the post, Dr. D., as well as the update on your raison d’etre in comment 8!

    Since womanizing is a time-honored tradition for male politicians, now might be a good time to confront the issue. Is the type of male who seeks higher office predisposed to an outsized appetite for sex? Is it just poor impulse control in general?

    Combine that with Spitzer’s wealth and all middle-aged men need to look in the mirror and ask themselves: If I had his money, could I resist the impulse to buy myself the services of a 22-year-old?

    To make the question more than rhetorical, I’ll respond:

    I might be able to resist. But the temptation would never go away (at least until I was too old to care).

  9. Denny,

    I finally got a chance to read this response, and I have to say you flew off the handle a bit there. Just because your opinion speaks for many people does not make you right. You should know better than to make that kind of statement. And please–if you want to throw an impressive credential at me, use your journalism resume or your doctorate. I’ve been blogging since 2001. 🙂

    Now, here’s a question: My admiration for you is normally boundless. I respect you immensely for your achievements and the work you do. Yet, in this case, you clearly state that you don’t care that I’m disappointed that you’re advancing what I think is a pretty flawed opinion. Much as Spitzer has let you down, you’ve let me down.

    Now, if you don’t care that you let me down, why should Spitzer care that he let you down? Hell, why should anyone care?