Thursday, March 20, 2008

Hypocrisy is the Least Forgiveable Sin

In discussing the Spitzer case with some colleagues today, it occurred to me that Spitzer actually committed several transgressions in the same act. There is of course the criminal act that he committed in engaging a prostitute. And there is the cardinal marital transgression of cheating on his spouse. And there is what is perhaps the most grievous public offense: hypocrisy. In his notable career as Attorney General, he had been a vigorous prosecutor of crimes including prostitution, so it was especially hypocritical of him to be a perpetrator of that crime. In my estimation, it was the hypocrisy that made it politically impossible for him to stay in office. As far as the marital transgression, I concur with many who find it personally reprehensible, and he deserves an expensive divorce. (If his wife stays with him, even that she would stand behind him at recent speeches, is more than he deserves.) However, I don't agree that it has much if any bearing on his qualifications to govern. Sure, ideally, I'd like my government leaders to be moral leaders as well, but that's a bonus if we get it, not a primary qualification for the job. People can be far from virtuous in their personal life, at the same time as being fine political leaders. His moral offense ought to be a private matter between him and his wife.

As far as the legal crime, I'm inclined to the libertarian view that prostitution shouldn't even be a crime at all, and so it's hard for me to get much worked up about that. It's almost entirely irrelevant to his duties as a governor (as compared to, say, taking bribes for political favors), although one colleague made the valid point that he did expose himself to the possibility of blackmail, raising risk externalities of legitimate public concern. A question of judgment is also raised. But it just doesn't outrage me in the same way as, say, finding a horde of cash in a Congressman's freezer. (And apparently even that doesn't make it politically impossible to continue to hold one's job.)

No, I think it's really the hypocrisy that was fatal to his career. Nobody likes a holier-than-thou crusader, and everyone loves to see them taken down. Who can resist the schadenfreude of such a Shakespearean fall? Bill Clinton and Jim Bakker both cheated on their wives, but it was only a career-ending move for the preacher. And as I've mentioned, William Jefferson is still in Congress despite being indicted on corruption charges, but the story would be very different if cash had been found in John McCain's freezer. (That's purely hypothetical just to illustrate the point. I'd be shocked and appalled if cash were found in McCain's freezer. But then that's the point.) Vice in any man is a failing, but vice found in those wielding the cloak of virtue seems the hardest to forgive.

1 comment:

Jim Madden said...

You nailed it. I too do not see the prostitution as an issue (libertarian), nor that he cheated (that's between him and his wife and I CAN'T believe she stood up there with him when he resigned), but his hypocrisy was particularly unforgivable (from a political perspective) especially because he was put himself out there as such a near-holy-morality-man and a "f&*%*! steamroller".

"....change the ethics of Albany..." indeed, Mr. Spitzer.
That was QUITE the change.