“Look, I failed,” Eliot Spitzer says to the camera. “Big time.”
This latest campaign ad is a stunning admission for the former New York governor, still infamous around Albany for his self-proclaimed title as a “f*cking steamroller” back in 2007. But six years — and one particularly salacious sex scandal — can change a man. Or at least, that is what Eliot Spitzer would very much like you to think.
While Spitzer, brash as ever, dives head first into New York City’s usually demure comptroller race, he has quite predictably been forced to grapple with the ghost of his very public past: the 2008 investigation that exposed him as “Client No. 9,” a patron of a high-end prostitution ring, and that shortly thereafter led to his resignation. “I will try once again,” he said, “outside of politics, to serve the common good."
Well, that lasted long.
There was a time, our parents like to tell us, when morality still lived in politics. When sex scandals of a much lower caliber than Spitzer’s would end careers. But in a post-Bill Clinton mindset, when even our highest leaders have dabbled in indiscretion and resurfaced none the worse for it, David Vitter and Mark Sanford and Anthony Weiner and now, yes, even Eliot Spitzer make clear the possibility of a comeback.
But comeback requires orchestration, and Spitzer’s ad, released Monday, is the case par excellence of that fact. In it, he condenses a narrative he has been carefully crafting for six years — one of remorse and then, crucially, of redemption. It is a narrative that draws not just from the playbook of past scandal-plagued politicians but from a story much more powerful.
In Monday’s ad, Spitzer says he “failed.” In a 2009 Vanity Fair profile, the synonym he used was “sinned.” “What I did was heinous and wrong… It wasn’t hubris or a death wish – but frailty, temptation, and common miscalculation.” But, Spitzer says, for the last six years he has atoned, and now the word on his lips is “forgiveness.” “I’ve spent five years thinking, apologizing,” Spitzer said this July on Morning Joe. “I’m ready to ask for forgiveness.” Later, to Mika Brezezinki, “You go through pain. You change.”
So absolved, at least according to his ad, “the sheriff of Wall Street is back.”
The redemption narrative is a compelling one, as old as Christianity and often the backbone of how we understand ourselves and those around us. But when crossed with politics, it can also become a tool – another word for that is artifice.
Eliot Spitzer has already spun us one false narrative. During his time in New York politics, he had framed himself as a moral crusader, tough on Wall Street, corruption, and crime. And, of course, tough on prostitution: In 2004, as the state’s attorney general, he oversaw the arrest of 18 implicated in a Staten Island prostitution ring. “Its owners and operators will be held accountable,” he declared.
That image of integrity is now a hard one to believe. And just as we should approach his original narrative with skepticism, so too should we distrust his latest one.
This puts women in a particularly difficult situation. Just last week, Spitzer readily called himself a feminist, and on paper — at least until 2008 — that seemed to be the case. He promoted a vision of New York as “a beacon of civil rights and… women’s rights” and has a strong track record supporting reproductive choice, pay equity, and childcare programs. But this is also a man who insists that the prostitution industry exploits women, who made his career prosecuting prostitutes — all while, it turns out, spending his spare time patronizing them as well. This is a man who, by his own logic, helped lock up the very women he was complicit in exploiting. So much for feminism.
Oh, and he broke the law.
Whether these transgressions cross an irrevocable political line is something New York City voters, both women and men, will have to decide come Election Day. In the meantime, let’s not obscure the facts of Spitzer’s record – both the good and the bad – in the comfort of false narrative. In fluff words like “humility” and “change” and “growth” and “forgiveness.” Because most of the time, in politics, words like these are never anything more than a fabrication, the thick, sugary icing on a spoiled cake.