Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Art of Being Found Out

I borrow the title from a fascinating article in the latest issue of the London Review of Books by Colm Tóibín on the way in which some figures, in literature or in real life, seemed determined, whether consciously or not, to out themselves, reveal their secrets, and often, mire themselves in scandal and obloquy. This phenomena which seemed to have crested in late 19th century Britain, with Oscar Wilde and Dr. Jekyll being perhaps the best-known examples of the factual and fictional self-destructive self-exposer. Most of the article is devoted to an interesting consideration of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, a novel Tóibín’s article convinced me I should add to my ever surging “ought to read” list. As it is, the only thing I know about The Good Soldier is its famous opening line, “This is the saddest story that I have ever heard.” And this would be a fine description of New York State politics over the last month.

So tell me again, why is it again that we are supposed to be more outraged about Eliot Spitzer’s whoring than David Paterson’s numerous marital infidelities, his creative financing of his Days Inn’s rendezvous, and his former girl friends turning up in very high positions in the current administration? I will let the casuistrists out there parse the differences, but I suppose the real difference comes down to two words, Joe Bruno. Democrats will obviously fight to the death to prevent Joe Bruno from becoming governor, and unless a howitzer size smoking gun emerges, Paterson is in like flynt until 2010. It is increasingly clear that Joe Bruno and his minions largely orchestrated the downfall of Spitzer—I hope the Democrats in Albany aren’t too intimidated by what happened last year’s investigation of Bruno not to fearlessly look into any Republican plotting of Spitzer’s political demise. Alexander Cockburn in the Nation, never one to pass up the opportunity to monger a conspiracy theory, suggests that Spitzer’s downfall, if greased by his own indiscretions, was perhaps planned as pay back by Wall Street. I don’t know, but I would not at all be surprised if there is more to l’affaire Spitzer than the reported tracking of financial irregularity.

Paterson is proving to be what he probably is, a mediocre machine politician, a third-generation product of the last great Democratic political machine in New York City, J. Raymond Jones’s operation in Harlem, which spawned, among others, Charles Rangel, David Dinkins, Percy Sutton, and Basil Paterson (David’s dad.) Like many machine politicians they combined occasional worthwhile public service with getting along with the powerful and looking out for # 1. This is why I suppose Paterson has been so successful in the state senate, filled with people just like him.

It is perhaps becoming clearer what we lost when we lost Eliot Spitzer. Spitzer had his faults, goodness knows, but he was a crusader, a reformer. Paterson, and I hope I have to eat my words, along with crow and humble pie, seems to be a hack. I guess the most mysterious question about Spitzer is why he proved to be such a lousy reformer. Given the history of great reforming governors in the state, among them TR, Al Smith, FDR, Spitzer, even before his afternoon delights were exposed, seemed to be an utter failure.

Why? I’m not sure. I welcome further commentary on this. I would say that crusading governors need to make allies as well as enemies, need to have clear reform agendas, need to figure out ways to make the legislature approve the curtailing of their prerogatives by presenting a popular program they have choice but to endorse, and the need, to follow Machiavelli, to be either feared or loved, and probably a bit of both. Spitzer was none of these things. And he never learned, as Bruno has, to let underlings do the real dirty work, and develip palusible deniability.

As time goes on, his personal tragedy might become our collective loss. New York State politics remains a fetid dung heap, and no one seems up to the task of cleansing the stables. The last guy who tried tripped on his muckrake.

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