Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Governor Spitzer's Sad and Unusual Scandal

The scandal that engulfs Governor Eliot Spitzer is not only shocking in its revelations of corruption, it is almost without precedent in twentieth-century New York, according to Gerald Benjamin, political scientist and dean of liberal arts and sciences at SUNY-New Paltz.

Only one New York governor has been impeached and removed from office: William Sulzer, a Tammany Democrat who had some of his fellow braves investigated for corruption. Sulzer was subsequently impeached by the state assembly at the urging of Tammany leader Charles Murphy.

Particularly damning for Sulzer was the charge that he had filed false campaign records: he failed to report $60,000 in contributions and spent $40,000 of this sum playing the stock market. Sulzer was convicted in 1913 and removed from office, but the air of Tammany vindictiveness that surrounded the case diminished the odium against Sulzer. He was elected to the state assembly a year later on the Progressive Party ticket, but never won higher office and was done with active politics by 1916.

Since the nineteenth century public officeholders in New York have resigned under pressure, but the Spitzer case is unusual for both the governorship and the distinctive qualities of this governor's scandal. There is a jarring contrast between the "sleazy" quality of Spitzer's actions and his "rhetoric of rectitude," said Benjamin.

The New York City tabloids are already having a field day with the story: the headline in the Post is "Ho No!" The Daily News led with "Pay for Luv Guv." Thus do both papers get to indulge the delicious tabloid vice of expressing shock and outrage about sex in order to, among other things, write about sex. But however it works out there is something larger at stake in this story, Benjamin says.

"It's sad because New York had a moment to rise above mediocrity," said Benjamin. At 63, he can't conceive of a comparable opportunity to address the structural issues that distort New York State politics. His greatest concern is not for the "groupies" who can be found around many politicians, but for the people who saw the advent of the Spitzer administration as a moment to set aside solid careers and work "to help New York achieve its potential greatness."

Whatever the specific consequences for Spitzer and the state, Benjamin sees the scandal producing the kind of cynicism that undermines the legitimacy of the political system. "It's the unmeasurable consequences that are most troubling," he concluded.