The media has passed enough judgment on former New York governor Elliott Spitzer and I agree with the pundits on all sides; there's no possible defense for his extracurricular behavior and he is not above the law.
But these past events show that we must consider the behavior that we expect from our elected officials in their public, and sometimes private, lives. If anything, Spitzer's downfall amplifies that the phrase "moral politician" is an overused oxymoron. Neither of our two major political parties has cornered a market on morality.
Maybe it's time they stop trying, as Spitzer's successor David Patterson has done. He broke the news of his past extra-marital affairs immediately after taking office. Given his predecessor's past indiscretions, Patterson probably had no choice. It would have been a matter of short time before a Republican "oppo-man" would have leaked the information to the press. It was a shame that an incoming governor had to confront notions of morality by admitting guilt on his first day on the job, but it was a necessary shame for him, so the ship of state could sail on.
But don't expect similar "touchy-feely" statements from members of the New York State legislature. Democrats hope to move on from Spitzer's embarrassment and Republicans have about two and a half years left to take advantage of it. There's no reason for other New York politicians to "expose" themselves if they don't have to.
Whether a candidate is a crusading attorney, a wealthy entrepreneur or an entertainer, Americans seek and want to elect leaders who have been successful in their prior endeavors, hopeful that they can successfully work their magic on a broken government. New Yorkers in particular like to vote for such candidates, even if they didn't live in the Empire State before they declared their intentions to run for office.
But as the media likes to remind us, these would-be magicians are only human. After all, the crusaders, the rich and the famous are offered more temptations than the rest of us. Why do voters still expect them to resist? Do voters still expect them to be something more than human?
I live in the neighboring state of New Jersey, though I'm fortunate to be represented by a very competent Congressman. He's always gotten my vote for as long as I have lived in his district. He communicates regularly with his constituents by e-mail and answered every question thoroughly in the town meetings that I have attended. A physicist by academic training, he has held positions as a teacher, Congressional Science Fellow, and arms control expert at the U.S. State Department and assistant director of a research laboratory at Princeton. While I would not consider our representative to be charismatic, he does not to talk down to the voters and he certainly listens. He's also much smarter than me. He's been deservedly re-elected four times and no one questions his character or intelligence. Nor does he preach how others should act or live.
The next time you vote, pay less attention to a candidate's comments on morality and more to their positions and their record on the issues that are important to you. Go out to a town meeting and ask them questions. Watch how they listen. You can't judge a candidate's character unless you know them personally, or you have been in their shoes; you can only judge them by their deeds. Unless a candidate has broken a law, his or her private life is none of our business, just as your private life is your own.