Americans are generally a forgiving lot. They revere Bill Clinton in spite of his philandering and outright lies.
And last month, voters in South Carolina elected disgraced former governor Mark Sanford to his former seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, despite his 2009 mysterious six-day disappearance and subsequent revelation that he had been in Argentina with his mistress.
So why not Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer? Last week, New Yorkers said “NO” to former Congressman Weiner’s mayoral bid and to former New York Gov. Spitzer’s attempt to become New York City comptroller. Why no redemption for these two? Could it be that — even in our “girlz gone wild,” anything-goes culture — there are still some lines that can’t be crossed?
After all, Clinton and Sanford may be flawed men who cheat on their wives, but Weiner (a frequent online sexter) and Spitzer (a patron of prostitutes known for “doing it with his socks on”) are just plain gross. Have voters drawn a moral line between cheaters, on the one hand, and outright perverts on the other?
Maybe. But such distinctions may be murkier than they first appear. Sanford may have left his wife for his “soul mate,” but his abrupt disappearance and use of government resources to cover up his actions were still unethical.
For his part, Clinton is a serial cheater and sexual harasser, who used his political office to procure women. Moreover, Clinton lied under oath about his sexcapades (for which, he lost his law license). And, although Weiner’s conduct was vile, he seems to have broken no laws. So there must be more to voter forgiveness than moral clarity.
Perhaps it comes down to the embarrassment factor. New Yorkers may be libertine, but they are proud. Who among them could tolerate years of being teased in the national and foreign press for electing characters known in their “personal lives” as Carlos Danger or Client Number 9? Maybe last week’s vote was not a sign of moral line-drawing, but rather a reflection of voter desire not to become laughing stock.
Or perhaps New Yorkers voted against hubris. Clinton and Sanford may have shed crocodile tears, but they at least feigned remorse. Moreover, people genuinely like Clinton and Sanford, both of whom enjoy connecting with voters and have fine-tuned the art of retail politics.
By contrast, Weiner and Spitzer present as arrogant and smug. Spitzer, as the epitome of double-standards: cracking down on human trafficking while flouting the laws he was elected to enforce. And Weiner, the poster-boy for self- righteousness: routinely blaming the media and everyone else for prying into his “private life” — apologizing only for embarrassing his wife, but not for the underlying acts.
In his book, “On Apology,” psychiatrist and former Chancellor of UMass Medical School Aaron Lazare notes that an apology without humility is worse than no apology at all, as “it transforms the intended apology into an insult.” Could Spitzer (who reeks of hypocrisy) and Weiner (who displayed not an ounce of contrition) actually have expected forgiveness?
Both men’s so-called apologies always felt insulting, coming as they did from men who clearly felt sorry only for getting caught. (Weiner confirmed the insincerity of his apologies last week when he responded to his defeat in the Democratic primary by giving the middle finger to a reporter.)
So what’s the take-away? (Future philandering pols, take note.)
Voters can accept human weakness. They may even tolerate rogues. But they are unlikely to vote for laughable creeps who are also, quite simply, just jerks.