Ruthless Egomania and Sex

NEW SLAUGHTERThe very high moral dudgeon directed at Eliot Spitzer and Anthony Weiner, (but mostly Spitzer) for attempting comebacks is duly noted. Both gentlemen were bad boys. They are also big boys who have thick enough skin to take headline punning, jokes by late night comics and insults hurled at them by yobs on the street as they press the flesh … oh, sorry … “campaign” for a second act, as the media has been describing it.

The Strib picked up John Dickerson’s rant from Slate, in which he writes, “[Spitzer’s] appeal based on forgiveness asks voters to demonstrate a quality he has never shown in public life and which he implicitly promises not to show in the future.  Before Spitzer became known as Client No. 9, he was known for his brash, hardball tactics. As New York’s attorney general, he built a reputation as a fierce opponent of Wall Street, which created a successful platform for his gubernatorial bid. … Spitzer may be asking for forgiveness of his sexual indiscretions, but he’s running on his reputation as attorney general, which was built on ruthlessness.”

Right.

Based entirely on what I’ve read  — which is to say that like practically all of us I’ve never met the man and can only try to cull of realistic portrait from the usual heavy-breathing coverage — I accept that Spitzer is a serious piece of work. Rapaciously ambitious. Egomanical. Ruthless. Monomaniacally focused, and vain. Then you get to the softer virtues, which are compromised by all the above, like a shrewd tactical mind, relentless energy and, I’m inclined to believe, a unique determination to apply equal justice to, as Dickerson says, some of the “venerable” masters of Wall Street.

Oscar-winner Alex Gibney’s documentary on the Spitzer story, “Client No. 9″ has its critics. But the film, in my humble opinion, offers more balance and nuance than most of what passes for reporting and expert punditry today. Spitzer’s faults are there for everyone to see, but so also are his legal and political objectives. Did he see aggressive prosecution of heretofore impregnable Wall Street banks, brokerages and insurance titans as a pathway to (much) higher public office? Yes. And who wouldn’t?

Did it mean making potentially lethal enemies with not just some of, but the most influential (i.e. wealthiest) people on the planet? Yes it did, and he was not naive about who he was going up against.

Could all that legal threatening have been a cynical ruse in which he accomplished nothing but looked good enough to be congratulated for the fight? I suppose. Stranger things have happened. But you don’t get that feel from Gibney’s movie or from the titans with whom Spitzer locked horns. They hated the bastard, and said enough publicly and on the record to powerfully suggest they were fighting him off with every tool at their disposal, which when you’re talking AIG, (read this Wall Street Journal commentary — and note the publication date for the raw irony of it all), and Goldman Sachs is every tool any of us can ever imagine.

Dickerson and Spitzer’s other morally aggrieved critics argue that his sin is much more hypocrisy than sex. He was simultaneously prosecuting prostitution rings while dialing up pricey hotties for tension relief. But as Dale Bumpers said defending Bill Clinton in his impeachment trial, “You’re here today because the president suffered a terrible moral lapse, a marital infidelity. Not a breach of the public trust, not a crime against society, the two things Hamilton talked about in Federalist Paper No. 65 — I recommend it to you before you vote — but it was a breach of his marriage vows. It was a breach of his family trust. It is a sex scandal. H.L. Mencken said one time, “When you hear somebody say, ‘This is not about money,’ it’s about money.” And when you hear somebody say, “This is not about sex,” it’s about sex.”

Hypocrisy about sex is still about sex, even as, like Clinton, Spitzer was reckless enough to hand his powerful enemies the sharpest of daggers.

“Sharpest” because I fail to see how Eliot Spitzer’s “violation of the public trust” even begins to compare to the violation done to Americans’ (and damned near everyone else on the planet) actual damned lives by the titans he was attacking. Spitzer is the glowing example of the double standard for public violation. Abuse our quaint-to-voyeuristic concept of sexual propriety and you forever wear the scarlet letter, disqualified from serious consideration for serious work. Abuse our muddled-to-pornographic notions of success and stature and … well, life is a complicated process where the means often have to justify the ends. Or, as the mob likes to say, “It’s just business.”

I continue to say that nothing … nothing … is more important to the pursuit of happiness of everyone from the 90th income percentile down than re-balancing this country’s truly grotesque mal-distribution of wealth. Three successive administrations have either abetted the distortion that continues to expand or have proven feckless at combating it, in each case largely out of fear of counter-strikes from parties at least as influential as the U.S. Justice Department.

Eliot Spitzer — like a half-dozen other prominent politicians I have actually met — is not someone I’d want to be trapped with on a long road trip. But I’m not looking for a drinking buddy in people like that. I just want them to do their damned job. And in prosecutors genuinely protecting “the public trust” I’ll take a ruthless egomaniac (capable of focusing and sustaining public indignation) every day over a cautious, pennies-on-the-dollar conciliator.