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A Pants-Down Primer

Why did Eliot Spitzer go down so quickly, while Bill Clinton managed to hang on indefinitely? A tale of two zipper problems.

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Illustration by Darrow  

Undoubtedly the scarcest commodity in American political life, with its sky-high levels of partisan polarization and its cable-news-driven incentives toward oppositionalism and contrarianism, is unanimity of opinion. So maybe the most astonishing thing about the Eliot Spitzer self-immolation was the gusher of agreement that it brought forth from all sides, especially on two points. First, there was the unalloyed shock that, of all people, Spitzer—that storied crusader against Wall Street corruption, that tireless scourge against all manner of malfeasance, that embodiment of political rectitude—could possibly have been engaged in transgressions so tawdry and venal, so reckless and just plain dumb. And second, there was the insta-verdict about what he had to do: apologize (as profusely as possible) and resign (as quickly as possible).

But the long and endlessly entertaining history of political jiggery-pokery suggests that neither of these reactions should have been so automatic. The list of pols caught dabbling with ladies of the evening is not short and includes such familiar names as daytime-TV misery exploiter Jerry Springer (back when he was a city councilman in Cincinnati), toe-sucking strategist Dick Morris, and Louisiana Republican senator David Vitter. Even lengthier is the list of braying moralists—Newt Gingrich, Jimmy Swaggart, and Ted Haggard leap to mind—whose libidinal follies laid them low. Indeed, I’d go so far as to posit a General Theory of Sexual-Political Perversity: It’s always the most sanctimonious public figures who have their schlongs in the wrong places.

That Spitzer proved to be no exception to this theory owes much, I suspect, to the particularities of his vanities. Here you had a guy who saw himself as a Jewish Kennedy in the making—combining the dash and idealism of John with the self-righteous ruthlessness of Bobby—and imagined his family at the center, one day, of a kosher Camelot. Is it any wonder that a man harboring such conceits would come to believe that he could dip his wick with impunity? (And at the very hotel where JFK is said to have, er, entertained Judith Campbell Exner!) I think not.

Even so, it wasn’t slam-dunk obvious that resignation was Spitzer’s only option. Certainly, it wasn’t obvious to Spitzer, his wife, or the coterie of friends and allies who apparently spent much of last Monday and Tuesday arguing the question. History, again, provides countless examples of politicians who have weathered similar controversies and not only survived but thrived—the most glaring of which, of course, is Bill Clinton. The Lewinsky imbroglio was, by any measure, the most potentially politically damaging sex scandal in any of our lifetimes: one where the philandering took place not in a hotel room but in the Oval Office … and with an intern, for heaven’s sake; where the punditocracy, the entire GOP, and a decent chunk of the Democratic Party (at least at first) were calling for Clinton’s head. If Clinton could defy those demands, why exactly did Spitzer—living in New York, a state and city notable for their jadedness toward, and their tolerance of, the most awful and pitiful of human foibles—have to go?

After consulting with a number of Clinton White House veterans and reporters who covered the Lewinsky mess, I’ve come up with a list of reasons: ten, to be precise. The list has the virtue of being fairly comprehensive. And it also illuminates much, I think, both about Spitzer’s weaknesses and about the dynamics that hold sway when politics and sexcapades become explosively entwined.

1. The numbers. In the early part of 1998, Clinton was a popular president, with approval ratings that stood at roughly 60 percent. “Clinton had a national constituency—from waitress moms to black voters—who needed/wanted him to succeed and survive,” says one of his former strategists. “Whereas Spitzer’s constituency had no similar deep investment.” This is putting it kindly. In the sixteen months since his election, the governor’s standing in the polls had fallen through the floor. According to the most recent Quinnipiac survey to ask the question, in December, 48 percent of New Yorkers disapproved of the job Spitzer was doing, with just 37 registering their approval.

2. With friends like these. Despite some wavering at the start, Clinton ultimately came to count most congressional Democrats as his allies in his battle with Ken Starr. (Joe Lieberman being the most famous exception.) Little of this had to do with loyalty; it was a matter of self-interest, of the party seeing its fortunes as tied to that of its titular head. But Spitzer was even less popular among Democrats in Albany than he was among his constituents. The party disliked him personally and believed, perhaps correctly, that its long-term outlook was better served by his removal.


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