Eliot Spitzer and the Politics of Sex

The protagonist in C.P. Snow’s novel Corridors of Power, a politician who is having an affair, quotes an old Anglican Church maxim, “You can get away with unorthodox behavior. Or you can get away with unorthodox doctrine. But you can’t get away with both of them at the same time.” That, in a nutshell, explains Eliot Spitzer’s political demise. Call it double hubris.

We all know about the unorthodox behavior. In his recent documentary, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, film-maker Alex Gibney elaborates on the unorthodox doctrine: aggressively prosecuting the financial sector while he was New York’s Attorney General, and aggressively trying to push reform on a Republican-controlled state senate and a corrupt legislature. Gibney suggests that the enemies Spitzer made in business helped spread the news about his use of prostitutes and, when the word was out, his political enemies pushed for his resignation.

I’m a big fan of Gibney’s documentary style. Lots of face-forward interviews of key players in the story, all of whom, including Spitzer and his favorite dates, were eager to talk. A sharp-edged, bright lights, big city aesthetic for depicting life among the New York elite. Quick transitions from scene to scene, accompanied by an ironic musical score.

But the documentary leaves unanswered one key question. Given the political risks he was already taking for his unorthodox doctrine, why did Spitzer indulge in the unorthodox behavior? Maybe he knows, and the answer would have been too personal or too wounding to share with the world. Or maybe he himself doesn’t know. So I will speculate.

For a rock star, sex comes with the territory. Groupies offer it, and no one condemns rock stars who accept it. Men in power – whether it is economic, political, or intellectual power – are, at least to a certain extent, like rock stars, and they get offers. Many, at one time or another, take advantage of them.

One of the best portrayals of this is the classic Robert Redford movie The Candidate. As the campaign of the senatorial candidate portrayed by Redford builds momentum, we see one excited young supporter ask him to sign her bra and another flash her panties with his button pinned to them. He has a solid and loving marriage, and easily dismisses these clumsy advances, but we see another, much more sophisticated woman hovering around his campaign, flashing him glances that indicate they are having an affair.

For a long time male politicians got away with recreational sex and even the occasional affair. Jack Kennedy took this to unparalleled heights. Technology that easily keeps records (like the saved text messages sent by Tiger Woods), coupled with reduced public acceptance of promiscuity have made this unorthodox behavior much riskier. Governor Clinton emulated President Kennedy and got away with it; President Clinton didn’t.

We can assume that Eliot Spitzer knew that free sex was not on, so instead he went for what his consorts referred to as “the girlfriend experience.” But the movie indicates he knew this, too, was very risky, so he took great efforts to cover his tracks, for example paying in cash.

What was the thrill Spitzer was looking for? The act of sex with someone other than his wife? Or the illicitness of the act? Or both? What led him to do it? Boredom with a smart and attractive wife? Frustration at work? Rebellion against aging? Powerful feelings of entitlement? Rage at the demanding love of ambitious parents? Again, Spitzer didn’t tell the world, and there’s no reason he should. But if he wants to come to terms with himself, he will have to share it with his analyst/therapist and his wife.

What does this all mean for the practice of politics? As long as public attitudes in the US, unlike those in at least some European countries, condemn rather than condone promiscuity in their politicians, then the set of job requirements for politicians becomes more exacting. If you’re married, have a sexually fulfilling marriage, or act as if you do.

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