As I write this on Tuesday afternoon, March 11, the clock reads 4 p.m. It has been over a day since the media broke the story that New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer frequented high-priced call girls.
And Spitzer still hasn’t resigned.
His resignation may come as early as Wednesday morning — or it may not come at all.
That Americans actually have to question whether Spitzer will resign demonstrates one deeply perturbing fact: We have lost our sense of shame.
Whether it’s the incessant whining of the self-esteem movement, or the general move toward normalizing deviance, society has decided that no one should ever be ashamed of what they do. Those who engage in repulsive behavior maintain their social status, even after the public discovers their dirty laundry.
Former New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey — married twice, with two children — had a homosexual affair, throwing a government job to his alleged lover. He proclaimed he was a "gay American," took months to resign and then wrote a book about his experiences.
Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho was arrested for soliciting sex from a male undercover officer in a public airport bathroom in June 2007. He still occupies his Senate seat. Sen. Ted Kennedy "accidentally" drove off a bridge with a woman in the back seat of his car. He extricated himself from the car, swam to safety and waited until morning to call the police.
And there’s no need to mention ex-President Bill Clinton.
Americans routinely elect and re-elect politicians who act in ways that should make us cringe. We’re engaged in a vicious cycle of degradation: Politicians act with utter disregard for common decency, Americans tolerate it; politicians act with even greater disregard for common decency, Americans tolerate it even more. And the cycle goes on. It is not difficult to imagine a day when a legislator will be charged with murder — and then win re-election.
New York GOP legislators are threatening Spitzer with impeachment if he doesn’t resign immediately. Naturally, liberal commentators are rushing to defend Spitzer. Nora Ephron writes, "Spitzer, who a year ago had a shot at national office, is today a laughingstock because of his reckless involvement in … what? Let’s just say this right out: in nothing."
Hiring a hooker isn’t nothing. But Ephron’s right in one sense — to many Americans, it isn’t much. If New York Republicans impeach Spitzer, they’ll have to come up with a better reason than his proclivity for ladies of the night. If Republicans insist on steamrolling Spitzer based solely on his status as a john, they’ll risk looking vindictive and petty.
They should impeach Spitzer, however. Americans elect people based on their capability for honest political judgment — and any incident that demonstrates criminally tainted political judgment ought to be grounds for impeachment. Impeaching Clinton was right because he committed perjury, not because he committed adultery. Impeaching Spitzer would be worthwhile because he opened himself up to blackmail and corruption by getting involved in criminal activity.
As a broader matter, we can’t expect legislators to do our dirty work for us. If we want our politicians to act with a modicum of common decency, we must oust them if they fall short. To do that, we must recultivate the lost virtue of shame. Politics may be the second-oldest profession, but that’s no reason to allow it to openly intertwine with the first.