WASHINGTON -- Eliot Spitzer, the previously disgraced former governor of New York, told me today that he is testing what may be new dynamics of personal transgression and forgiveness in politics.
In 2008, Spitzer resigned amid disclosures that he had paid as much as $80,000 to prostitutes over several years.
Yesterday, a little more than five years after his humiliating departure, the 54-year-old Harvard-educated lawyer declared his candidacy for comptroller of New York City, a little-known but powerful post.
Spitzer’s announcement comes in a campaign era that seems, at first glance, to have become more tolerant of second chances for those involved in sexual and marital scandals.
I asked Spitzer if he thought that public mores -- and the rules of politics -- had changed in a fundamental way that would offer him an easier route to redemption.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I really haven’t been in politics long enough to have a basis for comparison."
“I don’t know if the circumstances are different now than they were, say, 30 or 50 years ago,” he said.
“I do think that back then, there was in general less known about the private lives of politicians,” he said. “So the idea of redemption wasn’t the factor that it is now.”
Spitzer made it clear that he was not assuming he would be forgiven. While he was not prosecuted for a crime, he spoke of earning back the trust he lost in 2008.
“I think that the public has always been wonderfully forgiving. But I have to quickly add that we will see if that forgiveness extends to me. The public believes in redemption, in second chances. We’ll see if that applies in my case. I have to earn it,” he said.
Spitzer said the decision to run was not an easy one. His family is on board as he seeks to once again fulfill his lifelong ambition to be a public servant, he said.
“It was a tough decision,” he said, “but [comptroller] is an interesting position. I have always been interested in public service, so I decided to go for it.
"I know that there will be body blows ahead, but I will just have to absorb them," he said.
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously declared that “there are no second acts in American lives.” He was wrong. As Spitzer shows, the political stage these days is full of presumed-dead careers in the midst of remakes.
On the sex scandal front, the other names are familiar: Rep. Mark Sanford and mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner, both of whom had their own falls from grace prior to their current political revivals.
Meanwhile, on a different plane, former President George W. Bush has begun a gradual, cautious and shrewdly managed rebuild. And even former Vice President Dick Cheney -- whose approval rating once rested at 13 percent -- is venturing forth after a heart transplant onto Sunday talk shows and appearances in his home state of Wyoming.
Fitzgerald’s dictum hasn’t always applied to politics, but there have always been risks in trying to successfully defy it. Richard Nixon did so for a while -- only to see his second act come crashing down in Watergate.
But the idea of one-act careers seems almost quaint today. Why?
On the sex-and-marriage front, the bounds of tolerable behavior have widened, or at least public discussion of them has become more accepted in recent years.
President Bill Clinton, impeached and nearly convicted in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, wrote a new textbook on how to survive in the crosscurrents of American culture, which both glorifies sex for its own sake and puritanically scourges those who seek it.
On one level, Clinton was the patron saint of shamelessness. Looked at another way, he was a paragon of political fortitude, soldiering on for his policy goals.
With political parties divided, there are no “smoke-filled back rooms” to block second acts. And with the abolition of most fundraising rules, the second acts can now self-fund or crowd-fund their way up again.
The rhythm and power of scandal has changed, too, said Whit Ayres, a prominent Republican pollster and consultant.
In the age of Twitter and cable TV -- and broadcast shows with names like “Scandal” -- individual political disasters have become industrialized, trivialized and conveniently (for hardy folk in high office) disposable.
“Things are so instantaneous now that these scandals burn white-hot -- hotter than they ever did, which can quickly drive people from office,” Ayres said. “But it also means that the damage might not be as deep."
“People have such short attention spans now,” Ayres said. “If you are a politician, all you have to do is wait.”