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Scot Lehigh

No Puritans in this Mayflower

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Scot Lehigh
Globe Columnist / March 11, 2008

THERE WAS always something a little too self-righteous about Eliot Spitzer.

Now we know that the Empire State’s great crusader has feet of clay — and, despite his Princeton and Harvard de grees, brains of mush, at least as far as common sense is concerned.

The man who styled himself as a rectitudinous reformer has gotten tangled up in one of the oldest kinds of professional pitfalls.

As The New York Times reported on Monday, Spitzer was caught on a federal wiretap allegedly setting up a session with a prostitute from the Emperor’s Club V.I.P. escort service last month in Washington.

Further, according to an affidavit prosecutors filed, the high-priced call girl went to a room at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington to entertain a man prosecutors dubbed ‘‘Client 9,’’ whom several sources have identified as Spitzer. From the affidavit, it seems apparent that Client 9 had been a customer before — and anticipated being one again.

This would be an embarrassing situation for any politician, but it is doubly so for Spitzer because of the reputation he has so carefully cultivated. There’s nothing quite so revealing as hypocrisy, and the fact that Spitzer has cast himself as an ethical crusader — and that he had prosecuted, and waxed wroth about, prostitution rings in his former role as attorney general — makes the double standard glaring.

On Monday, Spitzer tried to contain the damage, apologizing, though without offering any specifics, for what he called ‘‘a private matter.’’

A private matter?

That might wash if Spitzer were a private citizen. Or if this were a simple affair between consenting adults.

Certainly engaging pricey escorts in expensive hotel rooms isn’t the sort of thing that federal authorities typically prosecute.

Still, the fact remains that prostitution is against the law — and that Spitzer, as chief executive of the state of New York, holds an important public post. Elected officials are held to a higher standard, and appropriately so; the higher the office, the higher that standard should be.

If it’s somehow a private matter when a governor is identified as having paid for the services of a prostitute, what, exactly, does Spitzer consider a public matter?

That’s not to say there isn’t a private aspect to all this. There is: How the Spitzers deal with this as a family.

Watching politicians come forward to address the media in matters like these, I always feel sorry for their wives, and wonder why they so often agree to accompany their husbands, as Silda Wall Spitzer did on Monday.

We all assume they are deeply hurt and probably furious. So why put on a public face of stoicism? After all, Spitzer got himself into trouble. His wife would be perfectly justified in telling him to go out and face the music alone.

Still, if the way the Spitzers handle this as they go forward in their private lives is largely their own business, the public has every right to be disgusted by Spitzer’s behavior.

He’s not the first politician to get tripped up by a sex scandal, and he won’t be the last; an appetite for power often seems closely related to libidinous desires.

And yet, one can’t help but be dumbfounded by his self-destructive recklessness.

Spitzer’s first year in office had already shown that the gung-ho former prosecutor, hailed as a conquering hero when he took the governor’s office back for the Democrats after 12 years of Republican rule, has actually been a poor fit for the post.

The governor’s propensity for conflict won him a reputation as a bull in a china shop — a reputation the self-described ‘‘steamroller’’ often seemed to revel in.

If his knock-down-drag-out style made one wonder about Spitzer’s temperament, his aides’ use of the State Police to assemble information about Senate majority leader Joseph Bruno’s travel in state aircraft raised legitimate concerns about their misuse of power in an attempt to discredit Albany’s top Republican.

Spitzer’s rocky start even led the governor himself to suggest that, as he told The New York Times in November, ‘‘I’m not naturally suited to this job, perhaps.’’

At the time, the paper noted that Spitzer’s performance during his first year in office had left many asking this question: ‘‘Does Eliot Spitzer have the judgment to succeed as governor?’’

Monday’s stunning revelation has given a definitive answer: No.

This was conduct unacceptable in a governor.

It’s the right move to resign.

Scot Lehigh’s e-mail address is lehigh@globe.com.

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