Eliot Spitzer and Anthony Weiner are trying to make political comebacks in New York City. They deserve a shot.
If New York has always been a city of second chances it’s becoming something of a Mecca for politicians looking to make a comeback. Congressman Anthony Weiner who resigned in 2011 after a particularly cringe worthy sex scandal involving naked pictures and twitter, is running to be Mayor of New York City. In addition, former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer has been mounting and impressive political comeback as well. Five years after he was forced to resign as Governor after a prostitution scandal was uncovered by federal investigators he’s running to be New York City’s comptroller, basically in charge of auditing city government and handling the money. Far from the laughingstocks they were portrayed as during their downfalls they both seem to be doing well, in fact Spitzer recently took the lead over over Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer by nine points in a Wall Street Journal-NBC 4 New York-Marist poll.
Political scandals have been part of American politics since the creation of our country and in an age of shrinking budgets for news organizations and an almost real-time media cycle, they won’t be going away anytime soon. After all, scandals are easy to cover and generate a huge amount of buzz. But I’d argue that there is a huge difference between scandals that expose the President’s involvement in secret slush funds, hush money payments and the Watergate burglaries or scandals that uncover a freezer full of cash from bribes and the stories that are called “scandals” that involve the failings of elected officials in their personal lives.
The whole idea that politicians must resign when they are caught up in a sex scandal is hardly some hard and fast rule in American politics. When the Republican Senator from Louisiana David Vitter’s links to high profile Washington D.C. prostitutes was exposed, he responded by disappearing for a week and then asking for forgiveness at a press conference with his wife. Bill Clinton famously survived the most famous sex scandal of modern times with a combination of asking for forgiveness and refusing to even consider resignation. Maybe it’s the large number of media people in New York or the city’s still thriving tabloid industry that pushed Weiner and Spitzer to resign, but in any case it was far from something they “had” to do.
In addition, it’s hard to see how Spitzer and Weiner resigning helped anyone, other than the politicians and media spinsters who worked so hard to bring them down. Spitzer was replaced by David Paterson, not many people’s idea of an effective politician or great leader, while Weiner was replaced by a Republican who was then redistricted out of office. Not exactly a political triumph for anyone, other than Weiner’s political enemies. Indeed, it’s hard to think of anyone’s lives that were actually improved by these resignations. They own and their families’ probably didn’t since both men seem driven to return to public life.
A sad reality of the tendency of politicians to resign in the wake of sex scandals is that we often lose effective public servants that could have made our country better. The morality of Spitzer’s behavior is one question, but he is still the same person who came up with the novel approach of curbing the mafia’s power in New York’s trucking and garment industries through the innovative use of New York’s anti-fraud laws, an unorthodox approach that apparently worked quite well. Considering that five years after the crash we still have seen almost none of the powerful figures that helped cause this debacle prosecuted, it’s hard to argue that we were served better without Spitzer than with him, or that an improvement in the morality of the personal lives of our leaders will automatically improve our society.
In fact, it’s probably better that America and the press took a more lax attitude towards the moral lapses of politicians in mid-20th Century America. Eisenhower, Kennedy and FDR all engage in personal improprieties during their day, but that hardly changes the fact that they were effective presidents. Of course Spitzer and Weiner could lose on Election Day but if they do lose it should be because of their ideas and public records, not because of their personal failings. A politics that allows their experience and ideas to still be offered as a choice to the voters is a politics that is fundamentally stronger and better for our country than one where they are kept from the table.
AP Photo by Seth Wenig