Sex and politics in USA : is it just a plot to cover up truths America still cant handle?

Mar 30th, 2008 | By | Category: USA Today

Back in the middle of March an irate reader of the International Herald Tribune complained about: “How low you have sunk in publishing an editorial on [New York state’s call-girl-using former governor] Eliot Spitzer. … The United States is at war, the economy is on the verge of bankruptcy, confidence in the government and private sectors has evaporated and respect for America is at an all time low … The news media, which has the responsibility to inform the public on matters of concern, distracts its audience by focusing on this subject.” Since then there has also been the case of David Paterson – “New York’s new governor, who disclosed last week that he and his wife both committed adultery several years ago.” Then there’s “Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick charged with perjury over sex scandal.” And a recent academic study, which shows that: “In the Windy City [i.e. Chicago], prostitutes sleep with police more often than get arrested by them.” So … do the sovereign American people really care? Is all this political erotomania just a way of evading the deeper problems of the world’s first modern democracy in the early 21st century? Or is so much sexual immorality in high places a symptom of the deeper problems themselves? (Or is the deepest truth just none of the above?)

Dreaming of Silda Wall Spitzer …

Whatever else, political sex scandals are good for late-night TV comedians in the USA today – as in: “So, didja hear the dollar’s fallen so low Eliot Spitzer’s hookers are demanding payment in Euros?”

What I personally liked most about the Eliot Spitzer scandal, however, was his wife, Silda Wall Spitzer. She stood beside her husband as he confessed on TV. (And one joke here runs something like: A journalist at the press conference asked the former governor how much he paid his call girls an hour. And his wife interjected: “I can tell you he doesn’t need anything like an hour.”)

There was much media commentary – especially from women, I thought – about how infinitely sad Mrs. Spitzer looked at her husband’s side. But that wasn’t my impression at all. To me she looked like Jennifer Anniston – or at least how Jennifer Anniston will look when she is as old as Silda Wall Spitzer. (And for starters, what an exotic and interesting name that is!) When photos of the much younger call girl Eliot Spitzer had been seeing (Kristen) became available, it still seemed to me that his wife would be a more interesting lady to have an affair with. (Which no doubt says something about how old I am. But there you have it.)

Of course you can’t really know very much about someone you just see on TV. At one point I thought I’d heard that Silda Wall Spitzer had been urging her husband not to resign. But then I read in the New York Times that Eliot Spitzer had lately been increasingly unhappy in his job as governor. His reforming zeal was meeting a lot of opposition, and he “was always a politician of the most intense, high-strung order, whose … eruptions seemed particularly ill suited for the role of executive … Several aides said Mr. Spitzer had begun drinking more than his usual nightly glass of scotch. And his wife, a loyal and reliable support during Mr. Spitzer’s years of unchecked success, appeared to find the role harder to play when each month seemed to bring some fresh setback.”

On the other hand, someone told me they’d heard Alan Dershowitz on TV, saying that the crusading Democratic Governor Spitzer had also lately been meeting much resistance from his Republican and old Wall Street opposition. The bottom of the call-girl scandal was just that his opponents were determined to bring him down, and he should resist the pressure to resign. And then it turned out that on February 14, 2008 Spitzer himself had published an article in the Washington Post, provocatively enough entitled “Predatory Lenders’ Partner in Crime … How the Bush Administration Stopped the States From Stepping In to Help Consumers.”

I have now tracked several more exact bits of Dershowitz on Spitzer on TV down: here is one; here is another; and here is the very best – and the one that finally convinces me, pretty much at least. And here, e.g., is what Spitzer was saying about the Bush Administration in the Washington Post on February 14 – some three-and-a-half weeks before “law enforcement officials told major US media outlets yesterday a federal wiretap caught Spitzer … agreeing to pay $4,300 to bring a call girl named Kristen from New York to an upscale Washington hotel”:

When history tells the story of the subprime lending crisis and recounts its devastating effects on the lives of so many innocent homeowners, the Bush administration will not be judged favorably. The tale is still unfolding, but when the dust settles, it will be judged as a willing accomplice to the lenders who went to any lengths in their quest for profits. So willing, in fact, that it used the power of the federal government in an unprecedented assault on state legislatures, as well as on state attorneys general and anyone else on the side of consumers.”

I won’t go on. And I’ll note that Eliot Spitzer did finally feel obliged to resign, and there are many views in the media contrary to Dershowitz – as in, e.g., “Alan Dershowitz’s apology for Spitzer” and “Spitzer May Have Lied, Prosecutor Says.” But if you want to pursue the thought that Spitzer’s downfall does indeed have something to do with political and economic plots which go far beyond mere moral objections to consorting with call girls, check out, e.g., Dershowitiz’s own article on “The Entrapment of Eliot,” and Greg Palast’s piece, “The $200 billion bail-out for predator banks and Spitzer charges are intimately linked.”

David Paterson did the right thing … right?

At first it seemed that if Spitzer’s downfall did in fact have some kind of connection with conservative and/or neo-conservative plots to take down more liberals, at a time of much ideological ferment in the great republic, the liberals would at least have the last laugh.

I.e., when Spitzer resigned as New York governor he was succeeded by his lieutenant governor David Paterson – a legally blind politician of vaguely African American descent, who is even more liberal than Eliot Spitzer (if also less abrasive, less independently wealthy, and less well known as a relentless crusader against financial fraud and corruption on Wall Street, etc, etc).

Governor Paterson, however, had no sooner settled into office than he felt obliged to admit publicly to various sexual and other peccadilloes (as they say), before his anti-liberal opponents had a chance to dig up related dirt on him too. Moreover, by Tuesday, March 25 it had become clear that “New York’s new governor, who disclosed last week that he and his wife both committed adultery several years ago,” also “said Monday that he used cocaine in his 20s and smoked marijuana when he was younger.”

More recently again, the New York Times has reported: “Fuller Picture Emerges of Paterson’s Aid to Hospital That Employed His Wife.” And now: “Some lawmakers and political experts are warning that the daily revelations about Gov. David Paterson’s past are starting to hurt his credibility and affecting his ability to govern.” On US TV there has even been some speculation that newly installed Governor Paterson himself will soon have to resign – and this will lead to a fresh gubernatorial election in New York State that (say) Rudy Giuliani might even win (for the Republicans of course).

Kwame Kilpatrick and Bill Clinton …

Next we have what in some respects seems (to the uninitiated at least) the terminally silly case of Detroit “Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and his former chief of staff Christine Beatty” who in late March 2008 were “arraigned … on charges of perjury, obstruction of justice and conspiracy.” The great crime here is that the “mayor and Beatty … denied under oath” exchanging “romantic text messages” subsequently brought into the undeniable light of day by the Detroit Free Press.

At first blush, all this seems remarkably like the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal, back in the bad old days when the Republicans tried to throw Democratic President Bill Clinton out of office for lying under oath about his affair with a young White House intern – the exact dimensions of which were viewed by the president as less than complete sexual relations.

The Kilpatrick-Beatty case does not seem an exact analogy in terms of the exact sexual relations involved. But in both cases the great crime is said to involve lying under oath. (Of course the lying is about sex – as opposed to anything that has any direct relation to the people’s business. Which again raises the question of how many among us are entirely truthful about our sex lives?)

When you get into the Kilpatrick-Beatty case in even a little more depth – and how it relates to the vast complications of Detroit local politics, in an age when the historic motor city’s great claim to fame is being very aggressively challenged by the world economy on almost all fronts – you can at least start to suspect that there is much more than sexual morality to what is going on. So on Thursday, March 27 “former Detroit Police Deputy Chief Gary Brown said … he is considering a challenge to Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s mother for her seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.” On the other hand, the background here is that in 2003 Mayor Kilpatrick “forced Brown out of his job in the police department. Brown oversaw police internal affairs at the time and was overseeing an investigation into the mayor … which … might have uncovered the mayor’s extramarital affairs with then-chief of staff Christine Beatty and other women.”

The Chicago prostitution study …

Regarding the various dimensions of scandals about sex and politics in the USA today, Nicholas D. Kristof of the New York Times has recently written: “My own sense is that prostitution is deeply enmeshed with coercion and various other illegal behavior, so it is very different from having an affair (which I don’t think newspapers should worry about, unless there’s some impact on official duties).”

This would presumably let Kwame Kilpatrick and even David Paterson off the hook – while still leaving room for berating the hypocrite who is only getting what he deserves, Eliot Spitzer, which regardless of what Alan Dershowitz says, does seem to have become a quite popular sport even in fashionable New York City these days.

Yet an academic study touted during the early days of 2008, in no less a publication than Foreign Policy magazine, raises at least a few pointed questions about this kind of judgment. The study is by University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt, of “Freakonomics” fame, “and his collaborator Sudhir Venkatesh, a Columbia University sociologist who previously worked with Levitt to measure the average wages of street-level drug dealers.” In their most recent study Levitt and Venkatesh “have teamed up to study the economics of street prostitutes in Chicago.”

You can take an in-depth look at the study in a paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Allied Social Science Associations, held in New Orleans, January 4-6, 2008. One particularly interesting finding of the Levitt and Venkatesh research in Chicago is that “roughly 3 percent of all tricks performed by prostitutes who aren’t working with pimps are freebies given to police to avoid arrest. In fact, prostitutes get officially arrested only once per 450 tricks or so, leading the authors to conclude that a prostitute is more likely to have sex with a police officer than to get officially arrested by one.’ When freebies given to gang members are factored in, about one in 20 tricks go solely for protection and the privilege’ of plying their trade.”

Other playboys of the western world …

There are, unfortunately, no major or even minor sex and politics scandals going on in Canada right now. But in the midst of Eliot and Silda Spitzer’s ordeal, CTV news put a quick-and-dirty research piece called “A steamy history of political sex scandals” on its website, as comparative historical background.

In the USA itself this CTV piece noted the earlier troubles of Bill Clinton, Gary Hart, and even (of course) John F. Kennedy. (It left out Lyndon Johnson, Dwight Eisenhower and the girl who drove his Jeep during WWII, and F.D.R. – but you can look these up yourself.)

The CTV piece, with some suitable embarrassment, also noted that in Canada: “Our home and native land has been much tamer when it comes to sex scandals.” It nonetheless went on to allude to: the East German prostitute and Soviet Spy Gerda Munsinger back in the 1950s and 1960s, who dallied with such Canadian cabinet ministers as Pierre Sevigny and George Hees; and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau who “married Margaret Sinclair – a woman 30 years younger than himself – in 1971,” and then suffered through the (perhaps inevitable?) public disintegration of his marriage in the midst of the near-great Canada and Quebec constitutional crisis, in the late 1970 and early 1980s. CTV finally noted the much more recent romance between fellow Conservatives Peter MacKay and auto-parts heiress Belinda Stronach, which was shattered when “Stronach crossed the floor to the Liberals in 2005.”

In the not too distant history of Great Britain, some may recall as well, there was: “The Profumo affair, named after then-Secretary of War John Profumo,” which “began in 1961. Profumo became acquainted with a young party girl named Christine Keeler, who also happened to be acquainted with a Soviet naval attach named Yevgeny Ivanov … While all this was going on, a little thing called the Cold War was happening in the background. The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 is when the world was considered to be as close to all-out nuclear war between the West and the then-Soviet Union as it has ever been … In 1962, the affair became public. In early 1963, Profumo denied any impropriety and threatened to sue anyone who claimed otherwise … By June, he was gone, having confessed to lying and misleading the House of Commons.”

Should Americans just grow up at last?

In a word, YES! And here we can all of us in all parts of North America begin our rehabilitation by consulting a recent web item headed “Spitzer’s Fall and America’s Archaic Laws About Sex.”

This item reprints a recent Brazilian article, which intriguingly recounts the historical case of Alexander Hamilton: “If there is something that Americans can’t resist, it’s a sex scandal. The first US politician to get caught up in one was Alexander Hamilton (1755 or 17571804), who after a complaint was filed against him in 1791, was compelled to admit to his relationship with Maria Reynolds. Both were married – and not to one another, just to be clear. Although he insisted on not having violated any of his public duties, Hamilton” nonetheless “suffered a fatal blow to his career. Shortly afterward, he had to abandon his post as Treasury Secretary. In life, he never again enjoyed the prestige he had before, but … this peccadillo didn’t prevent him from assuming his historic place as a founding father'” of the world’s first modern democracy.

The latest sex scandals that Americans have proved unable to resist – from Eliot Spitzer to Kwame Kilpatrick – finally do seem to me what the International Herald Tribune reader has complained about: “The news media, which has the responsibility to inform the public on matters of concern, distracts its audience by focusing on this subject.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m as interested as the next guy in finding out about anyone’s sexual adventures with interesting women. Eliot Spitzer’s call girl Kristen does not seem all that interesting to me. But, again, I’m impressed by Silda Wall Spitzer, as a woman of quality, through thick and thin. And Christine Beatty seems intriguing too. All of Eliot Spitzer, David Paterson, and Kwame Kilpatrick seem to me interesting politicians.

So if anyone is stupid enough to let details of their private sex life slip into the hands of media mugs, by all means let’s hear at least a bit about it, and maybe even see one or two respectable photos of those involved.

But I don’t think any politician or public servant anywhere should have to resign from office as a result of any mere sex scandal. As Alan Dershowitz said about Spitzer’s hypocrisy, if that really does bother the voters to whom he is accountable, let them vote him out next time he runs. Leading lives of exemplary sexual morality, however (if that’s what never having affairs or visiting prostitutes means, as I’d agree in some sense it probably does), is not what I think we elect politicians or otherwise hire public servants to do.

They are not clergymen (or women), and their job is not to set some kind of general behavioral models for the rest of us. It is to make sure our government of the day, at whatever level, works well and efficiently, in the public interest, as defined recurrently by the people of the free and democratic society, etc, etc – through elections and in many other ways.

As Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau of Canada famously said long ago now, when I was as young as I’d still like to be now: “The state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation.” And that goes for politicians – the same as everyone else. Isn’t America still the land of the free, after all?

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