A Pants-Down Primer

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.

3. Dead in the water already. For all his troubles, Clinton was still in a position to advance—and, more important, to make the case that he was advancing—a positive agenda on both domestic and foreign fronts. But because of Spitzer’s diminished stature after his calamitous first year in office, and because of the overwhelming antipathy he’d ginned up in Albany, there was a pervasive sense that his putative priorities for the state were going nowhere fast. His departure seemed, in substantive terms, a cost-free outcome.

4. The letter of the law. On most scales of offense to public mores, Clinton’s sexual antics (those involving a cigar, in particular) trumped those of Spitzer (requesting condom-free fellatio). But Clinton’s behavior, however unseemly, was not criminal—and Spitzer’s, whatever one thinks in theory about the wisdom of criminalizing prostitution, was. This would have been a problem for any former prosecutor, even one who hadn’t cast himself as a paragon of virtue. And the fact that it was part of a pattern (and an expensive one, at that) stretching back several years only added to the explanatory difficulty that Spitzer would have faced had he chosen to fight it out.

5. Unshielded. On the legal front, Clinton was armed in his fight with Starr with a potent weapon: executive privilege. Although ultimately all the damning facts about the Lewinsky debacle did come to light, Clinton was able to drag the process out, allowing him to marshal his defenses, both legal and political. Not only was Spitzer bereft of such armament, but he was facing immediate indictment, the prospect of which would surely have been greater had he chosen to remain in office. Although no deal was cut to save the Luv Gov from prosecution, there can be no doubt that his lawyers counseled him that the wisest course for him to follow if he wished to stay out of court was to show contrition—and what’s more contrite than resignation?

The party disliked Spitzer personally and believed that its long-term outlook was better served by his removal.

6. Unshielded, II. Clinton was also possessed of the most prodigious fog machine in all of politics: the massive and relentless press operation that surrounded him in the White House. Throughout the Lewinsky scandal, the president could count on his adjutants there, and such artful spinmeisters as Lanny Davis, to throw up a cloud of doubt and misdirection around the facts of the case. But though Spitzer had around him a number of able press aides, it’s hard to imagine that any of them had either the skills or the stomach for the kind of systematic smoke-blowing that enabled Clinton’s survival.

7. Spousal support. Arguably Clinton’s greatest asset during Monicagate was his wife, who never publicly wavered for a moment in her support for him. At this writing, no one knows what Silda Spitzer is thinking or how she would have held up had he decided to forge ahead. But it’s worth pointing out what Mrs. Spitzer was quoted by the Post as saying at the height of l’affaire Lewinsky about Hillary’s steadfastness: “That would never be me. I’d be gone.”

8. Statehouse versus White House. Face it: The resignation of a president is simply a much bigger deal than that of a governor. The idea of Clinton’s stepping down was, in a sense, unthinkable; certainly the circumstances would have been unprecedented. But more than a few sleazy governors have been driven from office for offenses less egregious than Spitzer’s. The fact that so many people considered his exit inevitable helped to make it so.

9. A dark, Starrless night. After the support of his wife, Clinton’s second greatest asset in staving off the hounds baying for his resignation was his pursuer. In ways too numerous to count, Starr was the ideal foe: prim, humorless, irrational, driven by some combination of ideology and Ahab-like obsession. And behind him stood the whole penumbra of the “vast right-wing conspiracy,” from Richard Mellon Scaife to the “Arkansas Project,” which animated the left to line up beside Clinton for reasons of political solidarity more potent that personal loyalty. But Spitzer was facing a future in which he had no bogeyman to demonize—just a bunch of faceless G-men clearly doing their jobs.

10. Hypocrisy bites. Maybe most obvious, but also perhaps the final nail in any hope of soldiering on for Spitzer, was the vast disparity between his public image and the reality revealed last week. For Clinton, the opposite was true. As one of his White House aides puts it, “Everyone had at least an inkling that something like Monica could happen.” And, weird as it may sound, this was a great blessing—for nothing is more damaging to any politician than his unmasking as a fraud. Because we’d all known all along that Clinton was a dog, we had little choice but to forgive him, because we were complicit. But nobody felt complicit in Spitzer’s fate. What they felt was duped. And in the end, that’s why he was doomed.

E-mail: jheilemann@gmail.com.

A Pants-Down Primer