National Commentary

Nicholas F. Benton: Why Did Spitzer Do It?

The precipitous fall from grace of New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer this week has routinely left the pundits shaking their heads. His case, and those of Sen. Larry Craig, former New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey, the Rev. Ted Haggard and so many others in political or religious leadership positions, always raise the same questions. Why would anyone risk so much for apparently so little?

These guys are bright, and clearly skilled in navigating their rises to power and influence. So why would they take such chances and consort with such danger to their careers, reputations and families? It’s happened so much with high profile people lately that it seems almost to have reached epidemic proportions, yet most folks remain baffled when it comes to explaining it.

It’s not worth spending the ink on rehearsing the growing list of important names that have been found in the company of mistresses, male and female prostitutes, drug dealers, and others involved in illicit personal behaviors. That’s not to mention those found guilty of embezzlement, graft, corruption and other more serious criminal behaviors.

Ironically, some have survived their exposed trysts, politically, but others have not. That often has to do with the degree, or lack, of personal grit of the persons involved, and with the depth of loyalty and support they’ve built up around them over time.

But the worst cases involve those whose private behaviors were at the most extreme opposite to what they stood for publicly. For such cases, it is the sheer hypocrisy, more than any illicit act, that is the greatest transgression.

I’ve never forgotten a vivid dream I had while a seminary student in Berkeley. It was one of those bizarre dreams that one can have during a brief afternoon nap.

In my dream, there was a group of people who were telling me they wanted me to be their leader. While feeling flattered, when I asked them why, their eyes suddenly began to glow, like the children in the old horror movie, “Village of the Damned.” They said, in creepy unison, “Because we want to kill you!”

That woke me up with a start and my heart was pounding.

Some might analyze that dream as my inner fear of taking responsibility for the lives of others, or some such nonsense. But to me the meaning was clear. When one assumes formal leadership to any significant degree, one gives up a lot, and it may even be one’s, at least spiritual, life.

It is true that when someone runs for public office, or seeks ordination to a ministry, one is applying for a job. As much as politicians or ministers may appear to be those with the power, in fact, they are working for someone else. Their employment, especially in those professions, requires that everything about their personal lives and thoughts conform to an unyielding model of virtual perfection.

Anyone who thinks it should not be a problem for qualified persons to live up to such a standard is obviously not willing to acknowledge much about human nature.

The dichotomy between the outward persona and the inward self becomes exaggerated in many such persons, and the outer persona can feel like prison walls to a stifled and repressed inner self that cries out for expression.

The inner self can find no outlet for its anguish other than ones that do not sully the perfect outward persona, and so it is forced into the shadows of illicit, secret behaviors.

It is a terrible irony that the public’s demand that its political and religious leaders adhere to a standard of veritable perfection necessarily tends to special forms of duplicity and deceit, the exact opposite of what the public wants.

But in addition to betraying the public’s expectations, the behavior uniquely tortures those who engage in it, and devastates the lives of those closest to them.

Society is not likely to ease up on its expectations, so there is no simple solution to this problem. One can only imagine how many more such officials there are out there, only waiting with profound personal dread for when it will be their turn to get caught. Many may even secretly wish for it, seeing it as the only way to begin to restore a modicum of integrity to their lives.