What I Would Say to Eliot Spitzer
I wonder what I would say to Eliot Spitzer if he were my neighbor.
Watching his wife, Silda Wall Spitzer, in that first hastily-called press conference, I thought to myself, That's a deep wound he's left. Eliot Spitzer apparently took extraordinary actions to get what he wanted, jumping through hoop after hoop after hoop put in his way by his contact at Emperor's Club VIP. The payments they requested ratcheted up and up with each telephone call, if the affidavits from the wiretaps are to be believed. It seems clear this is not the only time he's been a customer at such an establishment. It's hard to argue that it was a momentary weakness. The facts are quite damning. They get worse the more we learn.
Preamble aside, here's what he said he planned to do in his initial announcement: "I must now dedicate some time to regain the trust of my family."
That seemed a tall order to me then, and it still does. It is likely to take a bit more than "some" time.
Many say Spitzer's troubles are quite pleasing because of their irony. Spitzer was known as a crusader, with a carefully cultivated squeaky clean image, and with few friends, so this episode goes beyond a simple john-caught-in-a-sting story. Indeed, even the admissions of marriage on-on-the-rocks dalliances years ago by his successor, and even racier ones emerging from the neighboring Garden State somehow don't carry the same weight. Roger L. Simon called it correctly when he pointed out: "The outcry against Spitzer was not because he was some man seeing a prostitute, but because he was a guy who puts prostitutes in jail seeing a prostitute."
But, I'm putting aside for a moment the laws, his political career, and his storied lack of allies. I neither despise his policies nor particularly applaud his successes.
Instead, at a distance, it is possible to think of him as a man who is a husband and a father, whom I have to believe will want to try to make amends to his wife. At least, that's what he says.
A measure of compassion -- not for him, but for the spot he is in -- emerged as I heard the line about his plans to "dedicate some time" to regain his family's trust. As if it is a project to be tackled over the weekend, or a gardening holiday. It sounded like the desperate hope of any male who thinks he can just focus in and fix things. But anyone with close relations to any other human being, and especially people who have hurt, or been hurt, knows that such pain does not go away quickly. Breached trust is not regained after just "some time." It takes much longer. And it takes a much different attitude.
Watching, I placed myself in his shoes, listening to that press conference. What must it be like to be caught so very publicly and red-handed, to have to ask your wife of twenty-one years to accompany you to the dais, to desperately want the clock to turn back? A living nightmare.
Hate the sin, love the sinner. What would I want to say to my pretend neighbor, perhaps while we met one another on the way down the street to pick up the dry cleaning? At a time, in other words, when he was not a governor but just another person? Like he is now?
I'd want to say: " Don't think it's all going to get better right away. But if you have true remorse, and truly want to change, it often can turn out OK. It can take years, decades, and the outcome is not always assured. If I were your wife, I would want to ask you how I can be assured you are really trying to change. "
I would want to talk about the difference between an apology -- that really just amounts to regret at being caught -- and truly making amends. When you make amends, you recognize your own wrongdoing and set out to put it right. "Sorry" gets you a do-over. Making amends begins to address the problem.
You get the sense, watching public figures do their public business, that people begin to believe their own press after a time. Celebrities "become" their personae, as do politicians. This is Spitzer's domestic challenge now, to take himself down a peg and do more than "dedicate some time."
He hasn't been seen much lately so maybe that's what he's up to.
We've all hurt people and we've all wanted to make it right. And we have all experienced the feeling of remorse over not having truly made it right. How many of us mutter an apology and move on -- when far more is required?
And so I would want, finally, to say this to my neighbor: "It's time to devote your life to deserving the trust of your family. You can do it, but only if you want it deeply enough."
Brad Rourke writes a column on public life called Public Comments, produces an occasional videolog called Taxonomies, is a founder of the Maryland neighborhood blog, Rockville Central, and is in a band called The West End.