In May 2006, Eliot Spitzer gave the commencement speech at Colgate University in upstate New York, where I was a student.
"Never underestimate the power you hold," he told us. "Set an example. Work yourself bleary-eyed. Be relentless. Demand more from yourselves, from your government, from your neighbors. Upend the status quo."
This was pre-Client 9. When the governor's prostitution scandal broke in 2008, his unremarkable commencement speech took on a new meaning. It was a funny thing to mention at parties. And with the announcement, last week that Spitzer is running for New York City comptroller, it got even richer. College didn't provide me with all the answers, but it supplied some big questions that I'll get to grapple with for years. For instance, why is it, again, that the guy who spoke at my graduation ceremony isn't in prison?
Instead, Spitzer is on his way to the pantheon of American redemption. It's an inclusive club, almost anyone can join. All you need is money, power or prestige; an instance of colossally bad judgment; and the brazen ability to put your sins behind you a little too quickly. Paula Deen was the latest addition to our redemption short list and maybe someday -- though it's a long shot -- George Zimmerman will make the cut.
The laws at the center of the Zimmerman case, by giving the benefit of the doubt to the shooter who claims self-defense, are an example of our seemingly unbreakable habit of favoring those already in a position of advantage. Now, I do not really think any public redemption awaits George Zimmerman. The sad legacy of this trial is that it has ended two lives: Travyon Martin is dead, and Zimmerman joins the ranks of those cleared in the court of law but convicted in the court of public opinion.
It is almost always those in a position of advantage -- holding the power, the money or the gun -- who qualify for redemption. All of a sudden, those of us in New York have our hands full of redemption stories -- not only Eliot Spitzer, but Anthony Weiner (shouldn't he be off soul-searching in Asia for at least a decade?) and Christine Quinn, who helped engineer Mayor Bloomberg's taking of a third term -- the sort of dictatorial power grab that we New Yorkers would have cried out against if it had been by a real Republican. But it's cool, he's one of us.
We need a redistribution of redemption. We need laws, policies and conversations that focus on improving the ways we give ordinary people a first chance, rather than giving out second and third chances to those in a position to demand them. Too often, our twisted approach to redemption consists of rewarding those who are content to turn a blind eye to their own flaws, undeterred by checks and balances of conscience. As Spitzer said to us graduates, "Never underestimate the power you hold."
My first child was born two weeks ago, and so far I have found nearly every parenthood cliché to be true. Fatherhood seems to have opened up in me, all at once, a new capacity for wonder, happiness, and heartbreak. The Zimmerman verdict was the first instance where I thought to myself, "How would I explain this to him?" One day, I'll have to explain to him some school shooting, or why so-and-so was or wasn't punished for what he did or didn't do -- why some people get away with things and others don't. Like most children, he'll yearn for a clear answer. He'll want to know why.
So, to whom do we give the benefit of the doubt? For every soul seemingly beyond public redemption -- your Bernie Madoffs, your Jerry Sanduskys -- there are multitudes who have escaped prosecution or been given a pass. And then there are those up on the marquee: Spitzer, Weiner and Bill Clinton, whose long-ago disgrace is surely, as we speak, being inspirationally packaged in service of his wife's candidacy.
Set an example, Spitzer told us. Demand more from yourselves. Upend the status quo. These were words, as it turns out, easy to speak but not all that easy to live up to. Words that assumed our own inherent virtue; whatever you do will be the right thing, just because of who you are. Perhaps some version of these same ideas ran through the mind of George Zimmerman that night, as he pursued Trayvon Martin with a sense of righteousness, a loaded gun, and a belief that in the end, the laws of his country would protect him.