Spitzer, Weiner and the New York City road to redemption

Walter Shapiro
Yahoo! News
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Eliot Spitzer wipes sweat from his face as he is surrounded by media while trying to collect signatures for his run for New York City Comptroller in New York, Monday, July 8, 2013. Former Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who stepped down in 2008 amid a prostitution scandal, says he is planning a political comeback with a run for New York City comptroller.(AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

NEW YORK – Why have this city’s once-sleepy municipal elections suddenly become the nation’s most high-profile halfway house for sexually addled politicians?

It would have been enough that Anthony Weiner (resigned from Congress in 2011 in a sexting scandal) has emerged as a surprising top contender in the polls for the Democratic mayoral nomination. Mike Bloomberg, the billionaire Republican-turned-independent, is finishing his third term as mayor this year and will not seek re-election.

But then without warning on Sunday night, Eliot Spitzer (resigned as governor in 2008 in a prostitution scandal) suddenly announced he was running for comptroller, the city’s top financial job that few voters understand or can spell.

New York City politics, once dominated by the political bosses of Tammany Hall, have never been for the faint-hearted. Two 20th century mayors (Jimmy Walker and William O’Dwyer) resigned and fled the country in the face of corruption charges. In 2000, Mayor Rudy Giuliani announced at a press conference that his marriage was over without first telling his wife, Donna Hanover, who then refused to move out of the mayoral residence, Gracie Mansion.

[Photo gallery: The return of Eliot Spitzer]

But nothing compares to the way that the 2013 elections have turned into a reality show called “The Road to Redemption.”

Maybe New York voters are more forgiving than Job. That is basically Weiner’s theory. Referring to the giant front-page headlines (usually with puns dripping sexual innuendo) in the New York Post and Daily News, Weiner told me in an interview, “There’s a disconnect between [the voters] and the people who write the wood for the tabloids.”

Hand-shaking Saturday afternoon in front of a Trader Joe’s in the middle-class Queens neighborhood of Rego Park, an area he once represented in Congress, Weiner drew apparent comfort from the warmth of his reception. He earnestly discussed stop-and-frisk police searches (“I believe it’s a legitimate tactic”) with a gray-haired woman criminal defense attorney. He tried to find common ground on guns with a burly man wearing a NASCAR cap (“You’re a second amendment supporter, what’s the argument for a big ammunition clip?”). And he beguiled an 8-year-old girl and her younger brother with the story of his ill-fated campaign for third-grade class president. (He neglected to provide lollipops.)

Despite Weiner’s eager-to-please manner, these conversations do not necessarily translate into support. The woman attorney, who did not want her name used, was impressed by Weiner’s answer on stop-and-frisk. But she confided that she would not be voting for him. Why not? “Two words,” she said, “crotch shots.”

Spitzer, who radiates the coiled intensity of a former prosecutor, is the kind of in-your-face politician more apt to frighten children than charm them. But Monday afternoon, surrounded by a jostling scrum of reporters in Manhattan’s Union Square, Spitzer seemed in his element as the man in the arena. As he put it, “I love the maelstrom. I love the screaming. I love the shouting.”

There is nothing rueful or apologetic about Spitzer, who both patronized call girls and prosecuted prostitution rings. Sure, he offered a few mechanical words like, “I hope that anyone who has gone through what I’ve gone through – and would have five years to reflect – would change.” But when I asked him Monday whether he had learned anything from the 2007 Troopergate scandal (as governor he had misused the state police to tarnish a Republican rival), Spitzer huffed, “That was not a scandal. That was Alice in Wonderland.”

More than Lewis Carroll, Tom Wolfe’s 1987 "The Bonfire of the Vanities" seems an apt guide to the upcoming Sept. 10 Democratic primary (with Weiner and presumably Spitzer on the ballot). In an election cycle certain to be dominated by the scapegrace sexual histories of these two high-octane politicians, the efforts of City Council Speaker Christine Quinn to become New York’s first lesbian mayor seem almost quaintly Victorian in contrast.

So what is the significance of the ego-propelled return of Weiner and Spitzer? Is it just coincidence or the symbol of something larger about New York’s and the nation’s political culture?

Here are a few theories about why these days no errant politician, especially in New York, can bear to wear a scarlet letter for long.

It’s easier to win tabloid headlines than elections: Both Weiner and Spitzer could still be embarrassed in their respective primaries. The polls showing Weiner bouncing along with about 20 percent support against the four other leading Democratic mayoral candidates may partly be a function of name recognition at a time when few voters are taking the race to succeed Bloomberg seriously. As for Spitzer, a Marist Poll last fall found that nearly two-thirds of New York City voters did not want him to run for mayor.

If I can make it here: New York City’s brutal media environment makes the White House press corps all like graduates of Emily Post etiquette classes. Dating back to mayors like Fiorello LaGuardia and Ed Koch, the kind of politicians who thrive here don’t take no for an answer. Ever. Even before their sexual kinks became tabloid fare, Spitzer and Weiner stood out as political narcissists. Is it any surprise that they did not devote years to anonymous charitable works before plotting their comebacks?

The Clinton factor: Weiner’s wife, Huma Abedin, is Hillary Clinton’s closest aide. But talking to voters in Rego Park about Weiner, they repeatedly invoked Bill Clinton as the patron saint of political second chances. Clinton’s redemption as both a president who survived impeachment and as an ex-president known for his international good works may have put all sex scandals in a larger context.

In 2013, we’re beyond embarrassment: There were weird elements to the Spitzer (black socks) and Weiner (all pictures and no action) sagas. But in an era when everyone under 40 has posted something on Facebook that they regret, we may be moving toward a Gallic-shrug tolerance of the sexual transgressions of political figures. This is difficult to quantify and runs counter to the moralistic tone of tabloid headlines (“Lust for Power” was how the Daily News welcomed Spitzer to the race). But we may be reaching the point where the only politically unforgivable sin is cheating on a dying cancer-stricken wife (see Edwards, John).

Perhaps the best explanation is the simplest: After a decade marked by deep recession, war and partisan breakdown in Washington, we have become collectively bored with the issues and substance of governing. What we crave is the mindless entertainment of a summer blockbuster. And, boy, is New York City politics providing it.