Hypocrites and fools

The spectacular rise and even more spectacular fall of the governor of New York, Eliot Spitzer, will stand in history as a striking modern revival of ancient Greek tragedy. In this case, the protagonist – dynamic, proud and belligerent – brings catastrophe upon himself with his arrogant behavior; he falls into the hole that he had been digging for others. There is a surplus of the irony that gave ancient tragedy the feeling that disaster was inevitable, that the protagonist’s actions made it impossible to escape catastrophe. When Spitzer announced his resignation last Wednesday, the whole world already knew that the merciless former «Sheriff of Wall Street,» the former attorney general who rode hard against prostitution rings and senior financiers with equal zeal, was himself the client of high-priced prostitutes. Furthermore, the federal authorities caught Spitzer by using methods that he, as a prosecutor, had introduced: they monitored his bank accounts and tapped his phones. Spitzer’s crime, in the eyes of today’s society, was not so much that he cheated on his wife and paid for sex. In another era, he would have had to deal only with his wife’s rage at the betrayal. (This rage could be deadly, as the fates of Agamemnon, Jason and so many others – real or fictional – have shown through the ages). But each era has its own rules, the red lines that must not be crossed lest the violator bring about his own downfall. Our age accepts many things that were once taboo, but others it will not forgive. Spitzer’s greatest sin was his hypocrisy: he did things that he would not tolerate in others – indeed, he founded his career on vociferous denunciations of wrongdoers. The former governor and those close to him would do well to investigate the reasons for this behavior, but what remains for the rest of us in this story is a sense of amazement at the inconceivable level of stupidity that Spitzer displayed, jeopardizing in such a way a brilliant career. It would appear that lust (because here we are not talking about love) cannot be tamed – and that stupidity has no limits. On the same day that Spitzer withdrew from public life, Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman to campaign seriously (in 1984) for the post of vice president of the United States, resigned from Hillary Clinton’s campaign finance committee. In her case too, hypocrisy and stupidity played a decisive role, albeit in a different way. Ferraro, and by extension Clinton, had come under withering fire from Barrack Obama’s campaign aides for a comment she had made in a speech a few days earlier, in which she implied that Obama was leading in the race for the Democratic party nomination for president because he was black. «If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position,» Ferraro was quoted as saying. «And if he was a woman of any color, he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept.» Ferraro appeared taken aback by the attacks that followed, claiming that her words were being distorted and that Obama’s campaign was deliberately playing the race card. But however much Obama may have exploited Ferraro’s comments, her biggest sin was her blatant stupidity. How could she have imagined that claiming Obama’s success was the result of the color of his skin would not raise a storm? Maybe her part in the holy mission to get the first woman into the White House blinded her to the sensitivities and wiles of the equally zealous people trying to secure the election of the first black president. Ferraro’s mistake and her punishment might appear trivial when compared to Spitzer’s downfall, but the simple truth is that both public figures blackened their names in a way that will cast a shadow over all their other achievements. One was the victim of his own hypocrisy while the other was laid low by the hypocrisy of others. Above all, though, both were victims of stupidity, the most dangerous (and unforgivable) sin of a politician. At least in these two cases the harm they did was only to themselves.

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