Yes, America loves a second chance. Even politicians who have been scorched in a sex scandal — sex being far more problematic than money or violence when it comes to sin — often rise Phoenix-like to run another campaign and chase after redemption at the ballot box. Rewarding the Comeback Kid knows no partisan, geographic or racial distinctions. The pattern is true for Democrats and Republicans, whites and blacks, Christians and Jews, big-city mayors and Southern good ol’ boys. (No women, far as we can tell. Yet.)
Now we are treated to the sight of two Jewish politicians, Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer, seeking a second chance in the city where careers are made and remade every day. Weiner, who resigned from Congress after finally acknowledging that he sent lewd text messages to various women around the country, is running a surprisingly strong race for mayor. And Spitzer, forced to resign as New York governor after he was caught patronizing a high-end prostitution ring, is trying for city comptroller, which many voters can’t spell or define but is nonetheless an important post.
Late-night comedians are thrilled. (“Imagine if they both win,” Jay Leno quipped. “The city could be run by the Peter Tweeter and the Hooker Booker.”) Voters can feel rightly confused, seesawing between the twin values of compassion and justice. It seems to us that those values ought to be weighed against three questions.
• Was the bad behavior private or public? Weiner acted with monumental stupidity when he texted photos of his private parts, but he didn’t abuse his office as a member of Congress. By contrast, Spitzer broke the law when he was supposed to be the top state official upholding it; beyond engaging an illegal escort service, his staff had also been caught using New York’s state police to gather dirt on a political adversary.
In this digital age, the line between private and public can be a click or a swipe away, yet it still exists. Perfection in private is an unattainable goal, but there ought to be a higher price paid for those who abuse the privilege of working for the people.
• Did he lie when he was caught? Here Weiner is on shakier ground, after his initial defense that someone else must have sent those naughty photos dissolved. Spitzer had no choice but to own up to what he did. The FBI was on the case.
Why these men, or anyone for that matter, think that an attempted cover-up will work shows either a delusional streak or historical amnesia (see: Genesis, Joseph’s brothers or Nixon, Richard). Lying speaks to something fundamental in our character. Remember that the now-sainted Bill Clinton lost much support during the Monica Lewinsky scandal not just because he had wildly inappropriate sexual dalliances in the Oval Office, but because he prevaricated under oath and before the American people.
• Is the t’shuvah real? Every major religion offers a road to redemption. Our tradition demands not just a recognition of sin and an apology to God, but a further expression of shame and regret and then a pledge never to think or act that way again. We’re guessing that Weiner is smart enough to refrain from sexting and Spitzer clever enough to stay away from prostitutes. But do they genuinely recognize why what they did was wrong? Are they strong enough to resist further temptation or embarrassment? Can we believe them?
As the once-disgraced, now re-elected Mark Sanford of South Carolina has shown, American voters have a propensity to welcome a fresh start, but even this tolerance for past sexual indiscretion has its limits. (See: Edwards, John.) We’d like to believe that the real test for office should be grounded in the candidate’s approach to policy and problem solving, experience, temperament, suitability and vision. It must also include, in these cases and doubtless more to come, the tougher challenge of deciding whether a second chance is deserved.