There’s been something unsettling about all the public fascination with the political sex scandals parading through the headlines this summer. It seems as though the private misconduct of our public officials interests us more than their actual performance of the work we pay them to do.
Perhaps it touches us more deeply. Or perhaps we find the real work of democracy — understanding policy, making choices — too difficult. Perhaps we just don’t want to be bothered by all that messy stuff.
With that in mind, let’s talk about Anthony Weiner, Eliot Spitzer and Bob Filner.
There’s a side of this story that does touch on policy, and it’s hardly been mentioned amid the hubbub. For all the outrage, smutty humor and Jewish anxiety these three cases have evoked, there’s one critical difference that’s mostly been overlooked. Put simply, the failures of Weiner and Filner are essentially inconsequential in the broad sweep of American public life. Spitzer’s downfall mattered.
Let’s take that a step further. Weiner was an underperforming congressman from Queens with a weird, exhibitionist habit that he pursued with strangers, making discovery and humiliation inevitable. Filner was a fine congressman from San Diego who decided to leave Congress and run for mayor, but quickly turned out to have an appalling, highly visible habit that no workplace can tolerate.
And Spitzer? He was a nationally prominent prosecutor who challenged misconduct on Wall Street at a time when nobody else was doing it, and at a time when that misconduct was about to tank the global economy. In the process he incurred the passionate hatred of some of the world’s wealthiest men. He also had a bad habit, the world’s oldest and most widespread bad habit. It’s survived for millennia, usually well hidden in the darkest of private recesses. But his case got found out.
Warning: This material contains conspiracy theories. If you find such things inherently nutty, you might want to stop here.
It’s essential to acknowledge, as this newspaper noted in an editorial in our July 19 edition, that Spitzer’s behavior, unlike Weiner’s, was illegal. Even though the crime of consorting with prostitutes is rarely prosecuted, Spitzer was New York State’s chief law enforcement official at the time. It had to have consequences.
Spitzer’s frequenting of prostitutes was exposed in March 2008 after a federal indictment was issued against a New York escort service, Emperor’s Club VIP. The indictment didn’t include names of customers, listing them only as Client 1, 2 and so on. But the indictment contained five pages of details about Client 9, enough to lead reporters quickly to the governor’s mansion. Spitzer resigned two days later, on March 12.
Coincidentally, Bear Stearns went under, kicking off the global collapse, on March 14.
Here’s where the conspiracy theory comes in. It’s a theory that’s widely believed by New York political insiders and journalists: that Spitzer’s billionaire enemies hired investigators to find dirt on Spitzer, and when they did, they fed it to a willing Bush administration Justice Department. The U.S. attorney for Manhattan, who had tangled in the past with Spitzer — but never with Wall Street crime — then launched the lengthy, costly investigation that resulted in the indictment of the escort service.
I don’t have room to spell out all the evidence, but you can get the full story from a documentary film, “Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer,” by award-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney. It includes interviews with three individuals who had every reason to want Spitzer’s career ended and readily admit it: former AIG chief Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, former investment banker and New York Stock Exchange director Kenneth Langone and the former Republican leader of the New York State Senate, Joseph Bruno. Also appearing are several prostitutes who knew Spitzer (they say he didn’t wear his socks), as well as a notorious Republican dirty trickster who worked for Bruno and all but admits he tracked down Spitzer’s secret.
It’s available on Netflix and YouTube. It’s deeply troubling and worth a watch.
Does it matter? After all, the man admits he did something illegal, got caught and, by his own account, deserved to be brought down.
The answer is that Spitzer, for all his flaws — and I haven’t talked about his legendary temper and vindictive streak — did more than any other official to combat the ruinous excesses of Wall Street during his eight years as New York state attorney general. If Gibney and others who’ve probed the case are correct, he was taken down by people who didn’t like being prosecuted for their crimes.
It’s important, too, because of what happened in May 2011 to Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
You remember him. He was the head of the International Monetary Fund, all but certain to become France’s first Jewish president the following year. Then he was arrested in New York on charges of raping a hotel chambermaid.
Less well known, the charges were dropped after prosecutors discovered the chambermaid had a bad habit of lying. And that cell phone and hotel electronic key records showed that the time she and Strauss-Kahn were alone was suspiciously short for the encounter she described. And that hotel security cameras showed the chambermaid afterwards sitting in the basement security office for over an hour before the police were called. And during that time an outside security official was summoned — an employee of a French security firm, whose boss happened at that moment to be at a Paris soccer match, sitting in the box of then-French president Nicolas Sarkozy, Strauss-Kahn’s arch-rival.
I could go on, but you can find all that and much more in a December 2011 article in The New York Review of Books by celebrated investigative journalist Edward Jay Epstein. It includes a minute-by-minute account of the day’s events and reads like a crime thriller.
What Epstein doesn’t cover is the so-what part. For that you can turn to any number of articles by progressive economists like Joseph Stiglitz and Felix Salmon or international journals like the Guardian and the Economist. They all agree that removing Strauss-Kahn from the IMF just as the euro was wobbling was a disaster. He was the only figure in international finance who had the confidence of both German chancellor Angela Merkel and Greek premier George Papandreou.
He was a strong advocate of stimulus spending and job creation to lift Europe out of recession, rather than the austerity policies followed by the German-led EU — and backed by his IMF successors. Had he been around to replace Sarkozy the next year instead of the mild-mannered Francois Hollande, few doubt that he would have faced down Merkel and pushed Europe toward growth.
Nobody suggests the engineering of Strauss-Kahn’s downfall — if that’s the case — as anything but a petty political plot by Sarkozy. He hadn’t been tilting at windmills or making giant enemies like Spitzer. What the two men did share was a very bad habit — Strauss-Kahn was a notoriously promiscuous sex addict — who handed their enemies a gun with which to shoot them down.
Contact J.J. Goldberg at email@example.com
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).