A Governor Finds a Little Humility in Communications

New York’s new governor, Eliot Spitzer, has been pissing off a lot of people in Albany since he took office. Legislative progress has faltered as people in both parties feel the indelicate blasts of a guy who has described himself as a “fucking steamroller.”

Now he’s got a nasty scandal on his hands as members of his staff are accused of misusing the state police to get opposition info on the state senate’s Republican leader. Two top Spitzer staffers have retained criminal defense lawyers in the mess, and one of them, his communications director Darren Dopp, has been suspended.

This seems to have made the Steamroller realize his communications style has been counterproductive. Spitzer has made his reputation as a tough advocate for the people. But advocates who clear the room with their bombast don’t have anybody from the other party to make better policy with.

“Without vigilance and humility, righteousness can become self-righteousness,” Spitzer said Tuesday at New York’s Chautauqua Institution. That’s something a lot of politicians — and we who comment on them and on the people who support or oppose them — could paste above their keyboards and message points. “We were fighting so hard for what we believed that we let down our guard and let our passion get the best of us,” Spitzer said.

Easy to let our passion get the best of us. In fact, our passion is the best of us. But when passion drives us into self-righteousness — sure we’re right, “without guilt or sin” according to the dictionary — we might as well just tape-record ourselves speaking into a mirror.

“Without a greater humility, great power will not simply cause us to make mistakes, it will be our undoing,” Spitzer said, quoting theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.

The skeptical New York media gave Spitzer some credit for his words — and they’ll wait to see if his actions change (and to see if in fact he was not part of this oppo research, as he says).

The point is that, once we stop spouting self-righteousness, other people might be able to hear the important things we have to say, the things that might help bridge the gaps. Spitzer’s larger message at Chautauqua was that his chief enemy is the strong force of a status quo produced by “a combination of interests that are directly vested and benefit from current policy; the resistance to change inherent in human nature; and the totality of despair, exhaustion and cynicism that have worn people down and discouraged them from believing that real change is possible.”

Self-righteousness wears everyone down. I’ve grown tired of mine. But I know it will keep cropping up.

— Bruce Benidt