Sucheta Dalal :Unwelcome Surprises
Sucheta Dalal

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Unwelcome Surprises  

March 8, 2008

The New York Times on the surprising fall of Eliot Spitzer

Confession: I thought electing Eliot Spitzer governor of New York was a really good idea. Now it’s clear to me why some people refuse to register to vote. You never know.

Sure, you think you’re up on the issues. And you watch for character flaws — we’ve been watching Hillary Clinton’s for so long we could give them pet names. But we don’t really know. What if she has a secret life as a French undercover agent or a space alien?

The Spitzer scandal has completely undermined my confidence as a voter. You pull the lever for your feisty clean-up-the-government candidate with years and years of experience putting the bad guys in jail, and it turns out he’s into high-risk, high-priced hookups. Or, if we go back to the Rudy Giuliani era, he has a meltdown and calls a press conference to announce he’s divorcing his wife so he can marry his mistress.

No more electing prosecutors to high office, people. Too high strung.

How can you guarantee that a candidate isn’t going to go all weird on you 14 months into the job? It’s not that we expect perfection, or even good performance. It was disappointing, but not really all that surprising, when Spitzer instantly alienated the entire State Legislature and got entangled in a dumb scandal about whether he’d asked the State Police to spy on the Senate majority leader. To be honest, we had all worried about the arrogance thing.

However, although Spitzer has been in New York politics for years and years, I never ever heard a single person say, “What if it turns out he’s paying for $1,000-an-hour call girls with wire transfers — you know, like the ones he used as evidence when he was attorney general?”

Really, it never came up.

Maybe this democracy thing is overrated. What’s the worst that could happen with a monarchy? I hear benevolent dictatorships are nice. At least if the dictator turns out to have an $80,000 prostitute habit, I won’t feel complicit.

Spitzer apparently preferred to schedule his assignations outside of New York, a courtesy that the home state has so far failed to appreciate. In order to arrange the now-famous meeting in Washington with the now-famous Kristen, he bullied Congress into inviting him to testify at a hearing on bond insurance. It will go down in history as the only time the House Financial Services subcommittee on capital markets has been used as a beard.

On Wednesday, Spitzer announced his resignation at a press conference, accompanied once again by his wife, Silda. (Memo to future disgraced politicians: The nation has discussed this at length, and we do not want to see any more stricken spouses at the press conference. Not even if she volunteers; it’s your moment of supreme humiliation, not hers. And while we’re at it, it’s impolite to register under the name of a friend/campaign donor when you’re checking into a hotel for the purposes of entertaining a visitor from the Emperor’s Club V.I.P.)

The about-to-be-ex-governor looked pretty Eliot-like, square-shouldered and assertive. He promised a comeback, sort of: “I will try once again, outside of politics, to serve the common good ...” That might work, particularly if he’s thinking in terms of handing out vaccine in Darfur. But I wouldn’t plan on, say, becoming president of a major university.

Meanwhile, the poor New York state government that was all ready to be cleaned up is left again to molder. David Paterson, the new governor, is a smart guy and very well-liked, which will certainly be a big change. But he has spent the last 20 years as a member of the minority party in the State Senate, a job whose only major duties involve eating lunch and complaining.

The new lieutenant governor will be Joseph Bruno, the Senate majority leader, who is — yes! — being investigated by the F.B.I. (It has to do with Bruno’s side job with an investment firm that got a lot of business from New York union pension funds.) In a less than reassuring moment of introspection, Bruno told New York magazine: “Who the hell knows if, inadvertently, there’s something there — that they uncovered, that they want to accuse you of.”

The state comptroller, by the way, is now an appointee, since the one the voters elected, Alan Hevesi, turned out to have big-time ethics problems. I thought Hevesi was a great comptroller, too.

But I’m not going to be fooled again. From now on, I’m bringing up every possible worst-case scenario. Go ahead and vote for Barack Obama if you want to — but what if it’s actually not Barack in front of the cameras at all, but his evil twin brother, the pirate? What if we elect Clinton and it turns out she’s secretly operating a dog-fighting ring out of Chappaqua?

Just remember, I warned you.

-- Sucheta Dalal