Up Close and Politically Personal: Remorse is the True Measure of Private Redemption

Suzanne Fields

3/17/2008 12:01:00 AM - Suzanne Fields

The histories of men and women, like the histories of nations, can be tragedy, comedy, or farce, and often all three. We must wait for the final act to pass judgment, as tempting as it may be to let fly at once. At the moment, Eliot Spitzer is merely another politician exposed with feet of clay, an enlarged ego, an overzealous libido, and the power and money to finance his self-destruction. This postmodern morality is gone with the speed of the Internet, but his resignation is not the final word.

If he truly wants to atone for his betrayal of public and private trust, there's still time to redeem himself. There's ample precedent (and instructions) in life and literature for redressing personal flaws. Judgment depends not on the depths to which a person falls from grace, but how genuine his remorse. Moral insight offers transforming power.

Gov. Spitzer, who becomes an ex-governor this morning (March 17), joins a crowded pantheon of smart guys who risked all for the transient pleasures of the flesh. But Spitzer is neither Antony nor Abelard, and his doxy "Kristen" bears no resemblance to either Cleopatra or Heloise. Purchased erotic adventures in the skin trade are particularly tawdry, no matter how much they cost. When Henry Kissinger spoke of power as an "aphrodisiac," he knew he was the honeycomb.

But the Spitzer story is an emblematic tale of our time and we're complicit in the telling of it. Ours is an age of omniscient voyeurism, where images of others in trouble constantly whet an insatiable appetite for more, more, more. Distinctions and boundaries are continually blurred.

How pathetic, for example, to watch Dina Matos McGreevey, whose former husband was forced to resign as Governor of New Jersey when his homosexual liaison with one of his staff was exposed, go on television to "commiserate" with Silda Spitzer. Naturally, McGreevey had a book to sell. She said she "stood by her man" at the podium when he confessed all only "for her daughter's sake." (Was she thinking of her daughter when she brought it all back to the public again?) We've lost the sense of the sacred that comes from reticence.

"I go forward with the belief, as others have said, that as human beings, our greatest glory consists not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall," Spitzer said in his resignation speech. That's a difficult task for someone who worked so hard to knock others down, but it's a worthy one. We can hope that he and we are spared the usual psychobabble about "sexual addiction" which accompanies the vocabulary of "healing." We don't need to watch a parade of his remorse.

Charles Colson, the ruthless hatchet man of the Nixon administration infamously willing to "walk over his grandmother" to get Richard Nixon re-elected, and who served seven months in prison for participating in a psychiatrist's office burglary on behalf of that campaign, demonstrated repentance by helping others. After prison, he established a prison ministry and worked on prison reform.

Shakespeare's Prince Hal, the future King Henry V, caroused in taverns, drinking and hanging about with lowlife and generally self-indulging as a wastrel youth. His father was ashamed of him. But, he disavowed his lowlife friends, even the much-loved Falstaff, to demonstrate that he could reform when it came time to ascend the throne.

It's not clear whether Bill Clinton paid any private debt for the humiliation he inflicted on his wife, but he can no doubt feel his own pain in the wake of the Spitzer scandal, as it draws attention again to his dalliance with Monica. However, there's a difference between Clinton's seductive "charm" and Spitzer's far from charming purchases.

Betrayal of the public trust nearly always counts for more than private immorality. This was dramatically brought home in the presidential campaign of 1884. Grover Cleveland, the Democrat who was the model of "official integrity," had fathered an illegitimate child in his bachelor days. James G. Blaine, the Republican who had been involved in railroad scandals, mercilessly mocked Cleveland's tawdry "copulative habits." Republicans reveled in chanting, "Ma, Ma, where's my Pa?" When Cleveland won, Democrats answered with triumphant mockery of their own: "Gone to White House, Ha, Ha, Ha!" But when you betray both personal and political trust, as Eliot Spitzer is learning in his considerable pain and humiliation, it's no laughing matter.