March 14, 2008
Politicians’ private lives often fair game
Bob Ellis/staff photographer
Governor Elliot Spitzer and his wife, Silda, are seen at the conclusion of the I Live NY Summit at SUNYCortland Sept. 18.
As he uttered the final words of his apology to the people of the state and his family Monday, Gov. Eliot Spitzer attempted to protect his private life by contending that politics is not about the individual, but the ideas the individual brings.
His words raise the question — When should a public figure’s personal life be criticized, examined under a microscope in the public eye? Where and when do we draw the line?
Time and time again the scandals, love affairs and tragedies of public officials and celebrities make headlines across the nation and in many cases, around the world.
“In my view, it’s appropriate when the private conduct bears some relationship with the public office that person is holding,” said Bob Spitzer, a SUNY Cortland political science professor who is not related to the governor. “People are interested in the private lives of public figures, celebrities and politicians. That interest is all that’s needed to get the information into public circulation.”
Eliot Spitzer’s situation fares quite differently than many others who have been in the political scandal spotlight, said Robert Thompson, a professor and founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.
“Here we have a governor who has identified himself as an untouchable,” Thompson said. “There used to be a gentlemen’s agreement like with whatever was going on in the Kennedy White House was reported very, very little. Those times are over and the real example of that is the Monica Lewinsky case. There are so many venues competing for readers, listeners, viewers, and let’s face it, this (Gov. Spitzer) is a juicy story; one of those stories you can’t turn away from.”
Bob Spitzer said the difference between President Bill Clinton’s 1995 affair with 22-year-old intern Lewinsky and Gov. Spitzer being a client in a high-end prostitution ring is that Clinton had consensual sex with a young adult and didn’t violate any laws.
“Eliot Spitzer paid for sex. He kept it a secret, for what appears to be years; paid for it, which is illegal; and reshuffled money around from one account to another to try to conceal where the money was going,” he said. “Clients (of prostitutes) are almost never prosecuted, but he is the governor of the state and used to be the highest prosecuting attorney of the state as the Attorney General.”
Bob Spitzer added that his initial reaction was that the Spitzer situation wasn’t necessarily a career-ending episode. There have been numerous other politicians who have been caught cheating, with prostitutes and other scandals and still stayed in office.
Louisiana Sen. David Vitter, for example, was caught in a scandal just last year when his telephone numbers showed up on old phone records of Pamela Martin and Associates Dating, a prostitution ring that was run out of Washington, from before he ran for the Senate in 2004.
In his apology to the public, Vitter stated, “Several years ago, I asked for and received forgiveness from God and my wife in confession and marriage counseling. Out of respect for my family, I will keep my discussion of the matter there — with God and them. But I certainly offer my deep and sincere apologies to all I have disappointed and let down in any way.”
He remains in office today.
Spitzer, on the other hand, announced his resignation on Wednesday, only two days after the news broke that he had been caught on federal wiretaps hiring a prostitute from the Emperors Club VIP, a prostitution ring that operated in areas of the United States and Europe.
“The problem in Spitzer’s case is the nature of his political career,” Bob Spitzer said. “He wouldn’t be able to govern effectively, to function because of the political uproar.”
Caroline Kaltefleiter, a professor of communication studies at SUNY Cortland, questioned the governor’s decision after the announcement Wednesday.
“Is it in the interest of the state and the people to have a governor who had a track record to resign in a matter of days?” Kaltefleiter said. “As a citizen, I’m really disappointed it happened so quickly. As a professor of media, though, I’m not surprised because of the heat he’s getting through the media. Reporters were just waiting to write that headline. Now the question is how long are they (the media) going to stay on this?”
Bob Spitzer said the zone of privacy for elected officials is far smaller than 80 years ago.
There are two examples for how the bar for what’s allowed to be talked about has changed dramatically over the years.
First, with Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had a political marriage with his wife, Eleanor.
“From the 1920s until his death in 1945, Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife didn’t sleep together. In the 1920s she caught him having an affair and wanted a divorce but realized if she did, it would end his political career. So they had an agreed political marriage,” Bob Spitzer said.
“He had various affairs, one of which was long standing. That was all kept secret. His mistress was even with him the morning he died at the breakfast table.”
The second example is in regard to John F. Kennedy, who was president from 1961 until his assassination in 1963.
“Reporters knew during his presidency he had multiple affairs at the White House. He literally had naked pool parties when Jackie was away,” Bob Spitzer said. “Reporters had the story but never used it. Nowadays, a reporter wouldn’t sit on a story like that ... they didn’t use it because they had respect for President Kennedy and didn’t feel comfortable exposing it to the public.”
Things really changed for journalists when former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart denied suspicions that he had been having an affair and challenged reporters to follow him. At the time, Hart was the leading Democratic contender for the 1988 presidential nomination.
Reporters accepted Hart’s challenge and exposed his affair with an actress, ending his chances to become president.
Kaltefleiter said the difference from back in the time of FDR and JFK is that over the last decade, there has been a preoccupation with celebrity culture that has expanded into politics.
“I don’t think anyone in the public office or celebrities have any sense of privacy today,” Kaltefleiter said. “Because of technology and what we call citizen journalism, the digital landscape is eroding the divide between the public and private sphere … because we have so many ways to get information now, it’s hard to keep any secrets.”
Spitzer is the first New York state governor to resign since Nelson Rockefeller in 1973. Rockefeller, however, resigned from the position to become the vice president under President Gerald Ford.
To read this article and more, pick up today's Cortland Standard
Click here to subscribe