For years the American people have been told that the problem with politics lies in our public servants. They go off to Washington and forget who put them there. They arrive at the state house and regard themselves as above the law. Decency's address is Main Street; corruption's address is Pennsylvania Avenue.
So, in this election cycle, as in each one since Watergate, the people yearn for a plain-talking figure from outside the system. We want someone free of personal vice, someone who transcends daily politics, someone who personifies the values we want to teach our children.
It is a seductive vision of national salvation. It is also a dangerous half-truth. Yes, part of the problem of American politics today is the venality of some of our public servants, but another part of the problem rarely discussed is that the American people possess something of a mean streak. For all our generosity and capacity for compassion, we enjoy watching other people's public distress.
We like to watch others twist in the wind for doing what we, of course, would never do. It's not that Joe, over there, doesn't fantasize about Sports Illustrated swimsuit models – but how dare Eliot Spitzer spend $4,300 on a call girl? "Mr. Spitzer sets a terrible example for our kids," we think to ourselves, as we fill up the SUV at the 7-Eleven and glance at the latest Britney Spears magazine cover at the checkout.
Each time a public figure gets hauled in front of the cameras to become an object of ridicule, it is really the underbelly of American life on display. We see the part of the national character that treats almost anything as sport, the part that takes comfort in seeing anyone wealthier, smarter, or more successful brought low. There has always been a place in American politics for tarring and feathering the do-gooder, like Spitzer, who also happens to be flawed.
Is there a danger to the Republic in the gleeful media blitz and Internet traffic regarding Spitzer and other sex scandals? Yes, there is. It is not just that a Monica Lewinsky affair totally consumes the time and energies of Congress. It is not merely that every time a public official is exposed and brought down, we discourage our best from doing public service. It is also that each public lynching propagates two pernicious myths: (1) that it is realistic to expect to find talented public servants who possess no embarrassing personal weaknesses; and (2) that all vices are somehow equal.
The latter myth is probably the bigger worry. People point to Spitzer and say that government officials are the problem and that our government needs to be as small and weak as possible.
But the issue is not whether Spitzer or any elected official falls short of the ideal. Everyone does. Our views about government should not be overly shaped by disappointment in some of the people who hold office. The issue at stake is what sorts of flaws render a person truly unfit for public office. This is the national conversation that sorely needs to happen – and it begins with a few questions:
In considering Spitzer's political future, do we ignore his many years of able service as attorney general? Is his transgression of a kind that makes him unfit ever to serve again? What if he had been a university president or chairman of the Federal Reserve? What if the violation had been different – reckless driving, for example? Is it Spitzer's lack of truthfulness?
Must our leaders always be truthful? Is lying about sex worse than playing partisan politics with the science of global warming? Why does every major Washington scandal (and now every sports scandal) veer away from substance and turn into an investigation of perjury and obstruction of justice?
What do we expect of a federal judge? Are nominees entitled to Senate confirmation as long as they emerge squeaky clean after interest groups can turn up no embarrassing personal details? Is an athlete with a gambling problem on a par with an athlete with a steroid problem?
What level of virtue do we expect of our leaders and icons? Must they be able, talented, diligent – and then some? Must they be better people than we are? Must they be as good as we pretend we are?