By Michael I. Niman, ArtVoice 3/20/08
To put the Spitzer prostitution scandal into perspective, let me go back two decades to when I first started teaching college—back when Eliot Spitzer was a young upstart district attorney. I was teaching an alternative media course to, I always suspected, a class that included a number of potheads. I asked my students a question that I told them I didn’t actually want them to answer aloud—but just think about the answer: “How many of you have dealt dope?” It wasn’t a secret that at least a third of college students smoked marijuana, at least occasionally. Of those students who partake, it’s routine to buy a bag of dope and split it among friends or sell some in order to help fund the remainder. Both actions legally constitute dope dealing.
I then cited FBI documents from two decades earlier, released to the public as a result of the Freedom of Information Act. The FBI, the documents show, transgressed from the business of law enforcement to becoming a hit squad for the Nixon administration. And in service to the curmudgeonly president’s agenda, the FBI had gone to battle against the pesky and perpetually anti-war alternative press. The problem for the FBI, however, is that the First Amendment of the US Constitution guarantees that irritating right to freedom of the press. So alternative journalists and other anti-war activists couldn’t simply be rounded up and jailed for their views. Hence, according to FBI documents, agents needed to find other reasons to arrest them. One directive from the Albany, New York FBI office stated that “since the use of marijuana and other narcotics is widespread among members of the New Left, you should be alert to opportunities to have them arrested by local authorities on drug charges.” This document was dated July, 1968. During the ensuing years, many alternative newspapers suffered staff losses or outright shut down due to marijuana arrests.
I explained to my students that they needed to make a choice in life. They were either going to be journalists or dope dealers. They couldn’t be both. I explained that the same rule held for all other forms of illegal activity. If they were going to be troublemaking, muckraking alternative journalists, then their tax returns had to be impeccably accurate, their cars registered and inspected, their lives legally in order.
Let’s apply this same simple rule to Eliot Spitzer. He could either be “the Sheriff of Wall Street” or a whoremonger, but he couldn’t be both—at least not for long. When Spitzer the whoremonger finally fell from grace last week, he fell hard.
His act of engaging in contractual, if not consensual, sex was clearly less of a sin than, for example, having sex with your own intern. Yet Bill Clinton stayed on as president. Ultimately, Spitzer’s transgression wasn’t so much that he solicited a prostitute. That’s just pathetic. The unforgivable sin is that, with three quarters of his state mired in an Appalachian economy, he paid $4,300. That’s the real sin—the brutal reminder that our populist governor is the son of a real estate mogul, born with the same privileges as George W. Bush. After establishing himself as the Sheriff of Wall Street, seemingly the only politician in the country with the chutzpah to take on corporate arrogance, we gently forgot that his close campaign for attorney general was bankrolled by his dad. The pricetag on Spitzer’s scandal reminds us that the governor is out of touch with our world.
In fact, Spitzer seems to have more in common with the Republican sex offender crowd than with garden variety johns. Take Florida State Representative Bob Allen for example. While serving as co-chair of John McCain’s Florida campaign last summer, he allegedly solicited a police officer in a public rest room and offered to pay for the privilege of fellating him. What makes Allen’s arrest particularly Republican is that prior to his arrest, he was an outspoken legislative homophobe, crusading against gay folks’ rights to adopt children, as well as co-sponsoring an unsuccessful bill to increase penalties for “offenses involving unnatural and lascivious acts.”
Then there was Florida Republican Congressman Mark Foley, who had a nasty thing for adolescents. He was chair of the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children. And remember Republican Senator Larry Craig of Idaho, who, like Allen, couldn’t keep his libido out of public men’s rooms. Craig pled guilty to soliciting a police officer in an airport toilet stall. Prior to his arrest, he was an outspoken opponent of gay marriage and cast the deciding vote killing a Senate bill to prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. And of course there was Louisiana’s Republican Senator, David Vitter, who like Spitzer, was busted for being a john. In an earlier incarnation, Vitter was an obnoxiously loud critic of Bill Clinton’s sexual transgressions, demanding his resignation. Vitter, like Bob Allen, is still in office.
Back to Spitzer. Prior to his outing as a john, he was instrumental in pushing through tougher penalties for both sex workers and commercial sex clients such as himself. As attorney general he was involved in prosecuting prostitution cases dealing with wealthy johns such as himself. It’s this hypocrisy that makes his sex life, like the sex lives of gay-hating Republican bathroom-dwellers, a public issue. Spitzer has been outspoken in calling for rules that he seems to feel don’t apply equally to him. It’s that arrogance—the willingness to ruin other people’s lives based on stated convictions he doesn’t actually hold—that’s unforgivable.
There’s something about this whole case, however, that’s a lot more disturbing than a simple sex scandal. Spitzer, for all his faults, was the highest-profile semi-progressive politician in the country. He was one of the strongest opponents of the unbridled corporatocracy. That’s why they cheered on Wall Street when word spread of his downfall.
We had too much riding on Eliot Spitzer for him to let us down. He was an unimpeachable Ralph Nader sort, who carried the banner of progressive politics right into the governor’s mansion. But he couldn’t keep his dick in his pants in mixed company. He lost his focus and he let us down.
But the big question, the troubling question that nobody in the mainstream media, not in 8,000-plus articles, wants to ask—is why was the Bush Justice Department bugging the telephone of one of their strongest and most outspoken political opponents? Let’s put this surveillance operation into context. In 2003 a group of citizens filed a civil rights case with the FBI concerning an Upstate New York district attorney’s office and what appear to have been fraudulent, politically motivated prosecutions. That case is still pending, with no apparent action taken to preserve evidence or actively pursue the investigation. The reason, according to an FBI spoke, is that post-9/11, the FBI’s limited resources have been redirected to national security cases. Hence, civil rights cases—which constitute the backbone of our constitutional system of government—have to wait on the back burner indefinitely.
We’ve also seen the type of cases that the Bush Justice Department is pursuing—high-profile political cases such as the persecution of political artist Steve Kurtz and civil rights lawyer Lynne Stewart.
Now, let’s get back to the Spitzer case. What is it about this case that made it such a high priority? Why does it trump damn near every civil rights case in the country? Why was George W. Bush’s politicized Justice Department tapping the phone of New York’s outspoken, anti-administration governor? How could they justify this as anything other than Big Brother watching and fishing for anything to take his opponents down?
Of course, Spitzer should have been aware that his phone could be tapped. Again, he was crippled by the same arrogance that placed him above the law—here it placed him above all vulnerability. He made himself a target, loaded a gun and handed it to his enemies.
Then there’s the hypocrisy thing again. I wrote earlier that Spitzer was a “semi-progressive.” By that, I mean he was progressive on certain issues, such as gay rights and reproductive freedom, but quite reactionary on others. One of these others involved wiretaps. Prosecutor Spitzer was a big fan of casting a big net and liberally using wiretaps to spy on citizens. And if the “troopergate” allegations are true, he wasn’t above using the state police to spy on his political opponents, such as Republican State Senate Majority Leader, Joe Bruno. It seems that while Spitzer was spying on state level Republicans, the Republican feds were spying on him. What goes around seems to come around.
Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of Journalism and Media Studies at Buffalo State College. His previous columns are at www.artvoice.com, archived at www.mediastudy.com and available globally through syndication.
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