Fans of Seinfeld might recall an episode where Cosmo Kramer reassembles the set of the old Merv Griffin Show, but then struggles to achieve anything close to a scintillating conservation. The format he ultimately stumbles into: “scandals and animals” .
The same might be said of American politics in the summer of 2014: not Seinfeld’s “summer of George”, mind you, but the summer of scandals, political animals and the voters who apparently are willing to forgive them.
It began with former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford – he of “hiking the Appalachian Trail” fame – finding redemption in the form of a special-election victory in the state’s 1st Congressional District. Two months later, former New York Rep. Anthony Weiner, driven from Congress in June 2011 after it was revealed he’d been posting lewd photos on Twitter, released a slick two-minute video (featuring – tear wipe – his wife and infant son) announcing his desire and intent to be the next mayor of New York City. And six weeks after that: former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, the reluctant star of Client 9, announcing a run for comptroller of New York City – five years after he was exiled from Albany for being a frequent user of a high-priced prostitution service called the Emperors Club VIP.
It’s not the first time that a shamed politician tried to get back in the game. Back in the 1988 presidential campaign, for example, Gary Hart vacated the Democratic field after he was caught having an extramarital affair. Hart reassessed and then re-entered the race, his beleaguered wife by his side.
But the difference, then and now: Hart’s comeback promptly flat-lined, whereas Spitzer has the lead and Weiner has moved to the front of the pack in their respective primaries (New Yorkers go to the polls onSeptember 10).
So what does this say about the already troubled state of American politics – such a sweeping statement would seem to apply, as we’re talking about referenda in decidedly liberal and conservative pockets of America – and those that strive to be part of the elected elite?
The temptation is to lay blame at the feet of Bill Clinton, the reasoning being that the former president set a dreadful precedent back in the 1990s when he chose not to do the honorable thing by resigning and hanging his head in shame for the sex scandal that disgraced his office. Instead, Clinton rode out the scandal. But in doing so, some would argue, he lowered the bar for future scandalmongers (in addition to affecting attitudes toward other pursuits).
Indeed, in post-Clinton America (that’s Bill, not Hillary), it’s the rare politician who steps down without exhausting all political, legal and media options – a current example being San Diego Mayor Bob Filner, who’s been asked to resign amidst sexual harassment allegations but instead issued a DVD to the media in which he meekly promised to behave better.
Then again, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised given that politics is in many ways intertwined with entertainment and pop culture and those latter two spheres feature a high tolerance for tawdriness (not to mention second, third and fourth chances – just ask Charlie Sheen and Lindsay Lohan).
Consider that, in 2014, the two most publicized pregnancies have been those of the Duchess of Cambridge and Kim Kardashian. One child will be the heir to the British throne. The other: the newest cast member of a staged “reality” show. Yet, despite its vapidity and overt phoniness, 2.5 million Americans tuned in last week to watch the crassness that is the Kardashian clan (after a sham of a marriage, a cynic might suggest that Ms. Kardashian’s new child and new romance has as much to with fresh plot lines as it does finding love a second, third or whatever time around it is). Meanwhile, Jay Leno, whose show is driven by what Middle America craves, had as his guest this past week . . . Elliot Spitzer – if, for no better reason, to ask: “how can you be this stupid?”
Of course, Spitzer’s not stupid. Delusional, perhaps, as the columnist Gail Collins points out. Opportunistic, certainly. And, most definitely, a narcissist who mistakes public service for a something as self-serving as a constant need for public adulation.
If New Yorkers are confused to make their situation (even the state’s governor has problems with these candidacies), they can merely look across the Hudson for clarification. Last week, Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop appointed former Gov. Jim McGreevey to the head of a city commission dedicated to job creating and training.
About McGreevey: in 2004, he resigned in disgrace amidst a sex scandal, as would Spitzer nearly four years later. Spitzer left office vowing, in his words, to work “outside of politics, to serve to common good”. Within two years, he was co-hosting a talk show on CNN (and, after that, Current TV). So much for laying low and taking personal inventory.
McGreevey, on the other hand, took up counseling work at the Integrity House drug treatment centers in Newark and Secaucus, and the Hudson County jail in Kearney where he’s run a women’s program called “Second Chance”. Unlike Spitzer, it’s a vocational path that hasn’t entailed cameras and klieg lights. Unlike Spitzer and Weiner, his return to government was by appointment, not forcing himself on voters.
Perhaps there is a rewarding life after political scandal – in so much as the new life isn’t in politics, or driven by political calculations. We’ll know in a couple of months if New Yorkers agree with that sentiment.