A look back at the Spitzer scandal and what it says about American political culture. The question being, why do we love scandal?
"What was he thinking," the secretary asked as we looked at the newspaper. It showed our governor, Eliot Spitzer as Client #9 in a prostitution ring. His shame hardened face was on every page, on every channel. The text messages between him, the hooker and the agency rolled through the internet. "I mean didn’t he know how much scrutiny he was under?" We chuckled and looked at his face, eyes blazing, lower lip sucked in.
It’s been two weeks since. Pundits, commentators, moralists have taken swing after swing at the human piñata doll that Spitzer has become. He’s a hypocrite. He’s stupid. He’s self-destructive. He’s arrogant. The headlines knocking him around showed that whatever fun Spitzer had with the prostitute "Kristen" we had more fun talking about it. Political sex scandals are nearly routine and so are the empty rituals of public condemnation. The only question that remains is why did we enjoy it?
A clue is found in an Associated Press story. Political analyst Steven Cohen at Columbia University said, "Politicians are like the rest of us...they’re flawed and do stupid things." Yet he still demanded they be held to a higher standard. "This isn’t Britney Spears we’re talking about. This is the governor," Cohen said. "He controls the National Guard and the state police. He could have people come to arrest you and me tomorrow. So his private behavior does become a public issue."
Cohen divides the antics of a trivial celebrity from the antics of a state governor with a line of bullet shells. Since the state has the monopoly of legal violence, the police, the army etc...those in power must control their passions. Hence we expect our leaders not only to enforce the law but embody it. So the first place our leaders must demonstrate their politics is on their body and for us, the traditional sign of bodily passion is sex.
It is a conservative tradition seen in Aristotle’s Politics, where the soul must master the body to make one eligible to lead others. In the Roman text To an Uneducated Ruler Plutarch writes "One will not be able to rule if one is not oneself ruled" predicating it on the exercise of reason within the soul. Philosopher Michel Foucault analyzed this in his series The History of Sexuality, saying "The importance assumed by the problem of the emperor’s virtue...their ability to control their passions...is seen as the guarantee that they will themselves be able to set a limit on the exercise of their political power."
So when Cohen draws a direct line from private sex to public service he only repeats a moral tradition without seeing the consequences. The effect is a neutered political life. The higher the office the more power is at risk the more normal the politician must be for us. Men must be married, wives chaste and doting. The kids must be earnest. The couple must always be in suits, always speak carefully.
The first problem is demanding that leaders embody the law never leads to restraint but the exact opposite, they believe they are the law itself. Is it any wonder Spitzer, the "Sheriff of Wall Street" was known for political zealotry? Long before he was elected governor, he imagined himself the law bringing urban cowboy and he enjoyed the power it gave him. It was part of his personal fantasy.
This leads us to the next problem with this conservative tradition. It makes sex into an ontological fact, as if the bare rubbing of bodies is enough. Anyone who has sex knows, every encounter needs a fantasy. I am powerful man but am being whipped by a woman. I am a Christian pastor getting blowjobs from a strung out boy. She’s kept her shoes on. Whatever, even the faintest scrim is enough. But what if the fantasy is that behind that scrim was cameras and reporters and behind them millions of Americans?
The fantasy of famous and powerful politicians is precisely that they are performing in front of audience. Bill Clinton gets blowjobs while on the phone with world leaders. Pastor Ted Haggard does meth with a gay prostitute and preaches against homosexuality on Sundays. Governor Spitzer prosecutes prostitution rings but asks his hooker "Kristen" for bareback. The list goes on and will go on because we are caught in a cycle of conservative moralizing.
We demand our leaders be impossibly perfect, to be a media powered surround-sound model of ethical life. Inside the sarcophagus of this image is a real human who fears being found and that fear drives them to play in the shadows. However far they go, the cameras will find them and the lights will turn on. And when they are caught, we who were foolish enough to measure ourselves by their image of false perfection will punish them with the force of our suppressed desire.
Politicians who attempt to model power know they are being watched, know they must be what no one can be, a perfect embodiment of the law. And we know it to, so when they inevitably fail the ensuing scandal allows us to release aggression at authority in the guise of reinforcing it. Hence we enjoy these scandals, they satisfy two opposing desires. We can reverse the hierarchy and look down on our leaders while remaining a part of it.
As long as this cultural cycle continues, we will scrutinize our leaders and they will play in the shadows knowing we will catch them. So the question "What was Spitzer thinking," seems easy to answer. He was thinking about us.