Imagine this: your friend’s husband starts an affair with an intern at his office; he gets blow jobs from her while on the phone with coworkers and while his wife is in the same building; he ejaculates on her clothes. You think, this guy sounds like a jerk. But then I tell you it’s Bill Clinton and a whole set of people suddenly thinks, aw, who cares? And it’s like, I don’t know, me? And it’s not because I’m part of the vast right-wing conspiracy, or because I’m a religious conservative, or because I’m a prude. I’m a sex-positive, 21st-century, New York City progressive who also thinks cheating on your spouse is a shitty thing to do—and that it has real-world effects, and that we don’t need to prove how sophisticated we are as a society by forgiving the transgressors electorally, which is what Eliot Spitzer has asked of us by announcing over the weekend his candidacy for city comptroller.
And I don’t even come to this from a position of moral high ground: I’ve done real shitty things. But when I fail as a person it has very little consequence to society-at-large; if I get embroiled in a sex scandal tomorrow, you probably won’t even hear about it. I’ll still be writing listicles about Brooklyn landmarks, and even if I’m not, it won’t really make that big of a difference in people’s lives. Really.
But the opposite was true of Bill Clinton: his sexual affairs capitalized the national and congressional imaginations, effectively stalling the country from doing any real work for more than a year. It led to him being kept far from the Gore campaign, which might have helped his vice president win Arkansas or New Hampshire, making the whole Florida thing a nonissue. (I know that might sound like a stretch, but if it’s credible to blame Ralph Nader for George W. Bush, then surely we can blame Bill Clinton. And look what happened there: war, deficit, recession.) It cost tens of millions of taxpayer dollars in investigations. When Anthony Weiner resigned his congressional seat, a Islamophobic Republican won the subsequent special election. Sex scandals do have actual negative effects.
You could say that’s not the politician’s fault, that liking to Tweet-pic your prick doesn’t affect your ability to serve in the House, but that’s not true. For starters, part of holding any level of political office is being a public figure, one for whom it’s socially unacceptable to behave so illicitly. Anthony Weiner knew if we saw his sexy webcam shots that we’d lose our shit, and that he’d be fucked. Part of his job is not to do that. Elected officials—presidents, governors, congressmembers—have obligations not to things as they should be but as they are.
But also, such behavior shows a real failure of decision-making (not to mention character), such that we might accept in a air traffic controller, or some fucking blogger, but that we shouldn’t accept (at the risk of sounding naively romantic) in a leader. Or, you know what? We can accept that nobody’s perfect, even politicians (haha), and find true forgiveness for every sinner, starting with ourselves. But—that redemption doesn’t need to come in the form of a ballot. I like Elliot Spitzer as a columnist for Slate. And his knowledge of economic issues suggests he’d be a competent, maybe even exceptional, comptroller. But you know what? Scott Stringer would make a pretty good comptroller, too. And he hasn’t fucked up so spectacularly (yet), so why not just vote for him instead? We don’t need Eliot Spitzer; Eliot Spitzer needs us.
Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart