April, 2008

Politics, Ego, Spin

There is a saying that politics is show business for ugly people.The desire for attention, for the spotlight, for universal love, for the ability to influence outcomes, is the same.

We learn what politicians are made of when they come apart at the seams. The flying-apart of Eliot Spitzer was a grimly entertaining spectacle.

Eliot Spitzer is an idiot. He is Rudy Giuliani without the common sense. I blame a combination of factors, a sort of perfect storm of character. Start with a spoiled rich kid with a tremendous sense of entitlement. Add an overlay of prosecutorial mentality, the self-righteousness and hypocrisy of the man who feels entitled to seek the punishment of others. And finally, brush on the show business element, the perception that integrity is procedural, not substantive. It doesn't matter what you really are; it only matters if you keep up appearances.

In the novels of Balzac, someone always ends up being destroyed for the same behavior in which everyone around him is engaging, including those persecuting him. A common scenario: absolutely every woman of means is having an adulterous affair with someone, often a younger man of her social circle. Everybody knows about it, everyone tolerates it, and everyone else does it. Then, without any apparent transition, everyone's eyes widen in horror, fingers are pointed, and ultimately the transgressor is driven to poverty, prostitution or suicide. You frequently have to analyze these novels quite carefully to decide what almost invisible trigger led to the destruction of the protagonist for such widespread behavior. It is usually a combination of two things, arrogance and carelessness. The victim exposed herself by injuring someone else's pride; she was vulnerable because of her behavior; and maybe she wasn't as careful at covering it up as the next person. Hovering behind and above these facts is the social canvas of the novels, a society which appears to require an almost random sacrifice from time to time to keep the wheels turning.

Eliot Spitzer was somewhat like an adulterous woman in a Balzac novel. He pissed everyone off with his rich-kid cockiness, and he didn't cover his tracks carefully enough. Used to being the one who feeds others to the lions, he must have been astonished to find himself the one being fed. Of course, that very self-righteousness added to the amusement of the spectacle.

Spitzer came from, and thrived in, a world where personal integrity means very little. And he had the cheek to claim that he was the exception to that, the personally incorruptible.

There was also some kind of appetite for self-destruction at work. One comment I heard a number of men make was: "You're a powerful man and you want some on the side? The world is full of younger women who will go to bed with you. Why hire a prostitute? If you must have a whore, get one via personal referral--for heaven's sake, don't book her on the Internet!"

I have a theory that children are better at judging the trustworthiness and danger of grown-ups than their parents. Children can see when someone's face radiates hypocrisy or unlawful appetitite, and they don't have the dulling dust of decadeds of social self-deception to counter their instincts. You could tell, looking at any photograph of Eliot Spitzer his entire career, that something wasn't right. His creepy nature, his corruption, shone from his face.

I am not trying to excuse the felonies he committed, and I think he was right to resign. I would simply like to see integrity become a real and substantive value, and not simply part of the spin. The standards to which we hold politicians are ridiculously, hypocritically high, because the process demands that adversaries be targeted, in the most personal and unfair way, all of the time. "Swift-boating" is just one unwieldsy, entertaining term invented to describe this. Yet are standards, which are procedurally so high, are substantively quite low. The arrows are fired by people whose integrity is no greater, often less, than the people they attack. Newt Gingrich was cheating on his wife at the same time that he attempted to remove bill Clinton from office for cheating on his. What would he have said if it had come out at the time? "We're busy savaging Bill Clinton now, not me."

Spin and ego are also paramount in the Hillary Clinton-Barack Obama stand-off. I feel genuinely sorry for Hillary right now. If history were a Hollywood movie, in which every narrative comes out the way it should, she would be our next President. She has worked so hard, suffered so hard, waited so long and paid all the dues necessary. Barack surging up is (sci fi geek alert) like the Mule turning up in the Foundation trilogy: all that math, all that work predicting history, and they failed to account for a randomly surging mutation.

AS I've said elsewhere, I will vote for Barack. Hillary carries a slight whiff of financial immorality from her days as first lady of Arkansas. Obama, by contrast, hasn't really been around long enough to get into trouble. Both are consummate performers, masters of spin. Obama is giving a slightly better performance. He also has a more impressive story to tell because race tends to trump gender in a fading man's world (compare the number of Hollywood movies in which a black church burns versus the number in which a woman is told she can't have the job because she is female).

But I don't have any sense of who either of them really is. As I always do, I will go into the polling booth with my heart in my throat, hoping I am not making a terrible mistake. (Speaking as a guy who voted for Ralph Nader more than once.)

There is strong circumstantial evidence that ego remains king in both their minds. If they had the public good at heart, they would announce the deal recommended by Mario Cuomo and others. Pick one of us as your nominee, and the other automatically becomes the vice president. What soothing news that would be, allowing us all to settle down and the Democrats really to start running against John McCain. And the one tapped as VP would have the best possible springboard to be the next president afterwards. The decision each has apparently made, to continue shredding the other for as long as it takes, is of great cheer to the Republicans, who have shown for decades (as in the Swift Boat campaign) that they are nearly impossible to out-spin.

Republican demagogic superiority over Democrats reminds me of an argument between two college roommates of mine. "I got laid first!" one crowed triumphantly. The other had to think a long while to come up with his riposte: "Only because you had lower standards."