Thursday, March 13, 2008

What Spitzer Teaches Us

In view of the Spitzer drama, let me add to the lessons that others have shared a few of my own.

The Moral Compass Lesson:

"I have acted in a way that...violates my, or any, sense of right and wrong." When you are handling lots of power, or if you simply have an ambition to handle what you think is a lot of power, you need more than just a vague, ill-defined "sense of right and wrong." You need specifically delineated moral principles. And they cannot be of your own making, because those are too easily recrafted for moral convenience. They must come from outside of you and above you. They must precede you, and must be sure that they will outlive you. They must be such that you live in reverence for them down to marrow of your bones.

The Congeniality Lesson:

It pay to be nice in politics. "Steamrollers" can accomplish only so much in a democratic government with multiple centers of power. Bill Clinton survived his Monica Lewinsky scandal partly because he had charm, he was up in the polls, and he had good standing within his party. Eliot Spitzer, by contrast, we thought on both sides of the aisle to be arrogant and obnoxious, had made himself enemies even within his own party and had slid swiftly from a 70% electoral victory to a 30% approval level. No one came running to his defense.

The Improbability Lesson:

Anything can happen in politics. George Bush was very popular after the first Gulf War to the point that Mario Cuomo, the Democratic favorite, declined to run against him. He overcalculated the predictability of politics. The events of 9/11 changed George W. Bush and his presidency in ways no one could have foreseen. In the spring of 2007, Barack Obama seemed to be running for the office of vice-president...then whoosh! Who would have thought that Gov. Steamroller would suddenly stop dead in his tracks instead of going on to run for President?

The Character Lesson:

The is not the same as The Moral Lesson. It pertains to what ancients called "the soul" but which we would call character. It is striking how everyone simply stood in awe of this man, 70% of us approving him to lead us as Governor. (I say everyone, but of course there were critical voices.) Now that he has crashed so spectacularly, everyone is coming forth with wise observations on his tragic character, on his type of soul that is so ill-suited to healthy political leadership. His prosecution of Wall Street barons is now widely observed to have been excessive, unmerciful, self-serving. (Read Amity Shlaes, "Spitzer's Apologies," New York Sun, March 12, 2008.) Perhaps this is training in the art of spotting these characters before we elect them. We will see if the critics of Gov. Spitzer who have recently emerged will apply this lesson to the candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination. (The Republican decision has been made, but we can still reflect

The Rule of Law Lesson:

It is heart warming to see, at least in the essays I have read, the call judicious restraint in dealing with this man at the bar of justice. I have been seeing respect for the rule of law that comes out of the British legal political tradition and a call to resist the temptation to return evil for evil, a concern for conscientious justice that comes out of the Christian tradition. In yesterday's Wall Street Journal, an editorial entitled "The Spitzer Rules" offered these wise words:

These columns have noted that there would be a certain rough justice in Mr. Spitzer, the Governor, being treated in the way that Attorney General Spitzer had treated his targets over the years. Nevertheless, in our system of justice, prosecutors enjoy broad discretion, and that discretion must be wielded wisely. ... It is tempting to argue that Mr. Spitzer deserves the Spitzer treatment more than many of those he made targets while a prosecutor. That may well be true in the sense that many of his victims were innocent. But the proper exercise of prosecutorial discretion dictates that the power of the state not be wielded merely to settle a grudge. Mr. Spitzer never learned that while in office, but playing by his unrestrained rules is not the same as seeing justice done.

Amity Shlaes ended on the same note in her article. "The best revenge for those on the receiving end of Mr. Spitzer's attacks is to avoid descending to his level. Even Mr. Spitzer's most-damaged targets will find odd comfort in watching him get a deliberate and fair hearing, and measured jurisprudence if it comes to that. May the law accord to him what he denied to others."

It is good see a public discussion about the nature of justice, judiciousness, and equity. The Lord brings good out of evil, and shows his mercy where we least expect to find it.


John Fund in "Eliot the Enforcer" points to Spitzer's "arbitrary use of power" and points to the "warning signs" we should have seen -- signs that liberals chose not to see because he taps into themes that tickled their ears. "Mr. Spitzer cloaked his naked devaluation of the rule of law with gauzy rhetoric that was perfectly pitched to make many liberals ignore his strong-arm tactics." In his Lyceum address, Abraham Lincoln warned us against men of ambition, Napoleons, who would not be content to build on another's foundation. For his part, Fund also alerts us to be cautious against men (or women, of course) of unconstitutional ambition.
An enduring lesson of the Spitzer meltdown should be that crusaders of all types who operate outside the rule books themselves merit a gimlet eye of scrutiny. An enduringly popular symbol in our culture is the man on the white horse who comes to clean up the town and purge it of its errant ways. But in the harsh reality of politics, for every selfless Lone Ranger who arrives on his trusty steed and does good, there are many more budding Napoleons who harshly impose their will -- and fall prey to vices they pledged to root out.

Kimberley Strassel takes the press corps to task in "Spitzer's Media Enablers." Disgraceful. But they never seem to learn.

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