Eliot Spitzer and the Seduction of Crusader Politics

Hypocritical politicians manipulate system to serve their own agendas

Few politicians will have fallen as hard and fast from the summit of political ambition as New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, allegedly caught meeting with a prostitute. Indeed, Spitzer’s fall may reveal some important lessons about the limits of crusader politics as officials like Spitzer practice it.

Critics and political opponents of the governor called for – and got – his resignation based on the traditional justifications of ethical weakness and criminal actions. But let’s not overlook Spitzer’s political hypocrisy. He purposefully and willfully ruined reputations and careers based on allegations of the same behavior he now reluctantly admits to participating in.

As a crusader, Spitzer manipulated the legal system in ways that served his own agenda. He bullied, threatened, and strong-armed his opponents, frequently relying on specious legal arguments and the threat of litigation to remove those he believed were corrupt and unworthy of the positions they held.

Eliot Spitzer’s story is not a random or even unique one. It applies to a culture of politics that accepts a no-holds-barred approach to pursing political goals and allowing individual politicians to define for themselves the “public interest.”

Spitzer’s reign as attorney general was the stuff of superhero comic books and novels. The superhero rushed into a corrupt world, ridding it of evil so embedded in society and governance that regular law enforcement could not exorcise it. The superhero skirts the law to bring evil doers to justice. But, it’s okay, because the end result is a better society-in the superhero’s eyes.

In order to root out evil, the superhero has to be above and beyond the law-the rules that common men and women live buy. The superhero uses his guile and ability to raise above pedestrian social customs and rules to put down those he believes corrupt society.

But Spitzer lives in the real world and the Founding Fathers developed a government based accountability, checks and balances. In Spitzer’s case, separation of powers-that crafty principle of federalism that gave state and federal governments different responsibilities-is also playing an important role.

The particular crime bringing Mr. Spitzer down is also noteworthy. The most powerful man in New York politics is being subdued by a victimless crime-prostitution. He has admitted to participating in an expensive prostitution ring using the fittingly named Emperor’s Club VIP. Stockholders and investors were not defrauded. Corporate titans were not abusing their power. No one was robbed. No one’s property was threatened.

Mr. Spitzer will likely be prosecuted under the rarely invoked Mann Act, an early 20th century legal relic put in place to stop interstate prostitution. It is exactly the kind of shell of a law that Mr. Spitzer pursued with gusto to bring down those he personally targeted as corrupt and unworthy of their positions in corporate America. As New York’s Attorney General, Spitzer indicted, prosecuted, and jailed dozens of people for running “escort services” and “sex tourism.”

Mr. Spitzer’s family will suffer terribly from this mess. But these transgressions are Spitzer’s. They are not the fault of the entrepreneurs operating the Emperor’s Club or its other clients. They are the transgressions of a crusader who couldn’t see the hypocrisy of failing to follow the same standards he expected of everyone else, who acted above the law, and, in the end, is being held accountable.