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Washington diary: Spitzer's scandal

By Matt Frei
BBC News, Washington

Eliot Spitzer returns to his Manhattan apartment, 10 March 2008
Eliot Spitzer has not been charged with any offence

There may well be outrage amongst the prostitutes of the District of Columbia this week.

Why did the governor of New York, Eliot Spitzer, allegedly feel the need to bring in a prostitute from the Empire State when there were plenty to choose from in the nation's capital itself?

One can imagine the District's red light district heaving with indignation. "You see! Those snooty New Yorkers. We're not good enough for them."

Mr Spitzer may well reply that he was acting out of state pride when he reportedly bought what court documents describe as a 5ft 5in brunette called "Kristen" a train ticket to Washington.

In his surreal post-scandal press conference he did, after all, refer to the "importance of ideas in politics" and his desire to keep building New York's future.

Unfortunately, outsourcing hookers to a rival state is not just an insult to the local guild. It also happens to be a federal crime, written into law in 1910 to prevent forced prostitution and protect women from being trafficked across state lines.

Blanket coverage

In any case, these peccadilloes are as familiar as bathroom mould. We have had a quite a few in recent years.

To be honest, we Europeans love a scandal as much as anyone

Larry Craig, the senator from Idaho who was caught playing lavatorial footsie in a men's room at Minneapolis-St Paul airport; David Vitter, the Louisiana senator who admitted his phone number was called by an escort service several years ago, but at least it was DC's own "DC Madam".

Jim McGreevy, the governor of New Jersey who announced at a news conference, with his wife next to him, that he had had an affair with a man; Mark Foley, the Florida congressman who sent inappropriate messages to teenage congressional pages.

There is a routine to these scandals. The revelation. The shock. The blanket coverage on the cable networks.

The news conference, where the aggrieved wife is made to stand next to her errant husband while he delivers an apology and promises to rebuild the trust of his family.

Political death

Every time, I ask myself the same question.

New York Governor Eliot Spitzer (right) with his wife Silda Spitzer, 10 March 2008
Mr Spitzer's wife, Silda, stood by his side during the news conference

What possessed Silda Wall Spitzer, a Harvard Law School graduate, a corporate lawyer, a mother-of-three and a wife of 21 years, to bestow upon her husband that image of unity, familial love and partnership without which he would look hopelessly alone and guilty?

Appearing by yourself at these press conferences is simply not an option. It makes you look sleazy and shamed.

It allows the audience to picture the 5ft 5in "very pretty brunette", as the FBI described her, by your side. It hastens political death.

The First Lady of New York looked as if she had cried since dawn and eaten bad oysters.

Why didn't she just biff the governor, who until Monday was famous for his moral crusade and proud of his reputation as the so-called Sheriff of Wall Street?

Europe's fascination

There was the inevitable transatlantic chuckle in the boudoirs of Paris and the kellers of Berlin over those prudish Americans.

President Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky at a Christmas party in 1996
The Spitzer scandal could stir up memories of the Lewinsky affair

But to be honest, we Europeans love a scandal as much as anyone and we are far more outraged than we would like to think.

Even those hard-core Lotharios in France were hooked to the marital mess in the Elysee Palace, the Carla Bruni affair and the president's whirlwind nuptials.

The real difference is that Europe does not expect the wife to save the husband's career. It seems old-fashioned, unreasonable and in the end it doesn't do the wife any favours.

Unfair though it may be, the de rigueur support of the scorned spouse raises the question whether she is more in love with her husband's power than with her husband.

As Hillary Clinton edges ever closer to the nomination and the Monica Lewinsky scandal is inevitably revisited in excruciating detail, it is a question we will hear more often.

What should women do? Walk out? Stay loyal? Buy a gun?

In that sense, the Spitzer scandal might have an impact on the presidential race. It raises awkward questions the Clintons would rather keep in the closet because they produce only bad answers.

Vintage crop

But what makes every scandal from Monica to Kristen memorable are the details that suddenly flood the ether, as if an army of brilliant Hollywood scriptwriters had been at work for months.

The crowd loves a scandal but they also lap up remorse and redemption

This scandal has produced a vintage crop. The alleged assignation took place on the eve of Valentine's Day. The governor was in town to testify before a congressional committee on the state of the bond insurance market.

There was the suggestion from the ever-helpful accountants at the Emperor's Club Call Girl Agency that Client 9, as court documents call the man who is alleged to be the governor, should pay more money up front so that he could have a larger credit next to his name. Such an arrangement suggests he was a regular.

There is the jaw-dropping cost of a two-hour session with a prostitute: $4,300 (2,143)! Forgive me for asking, but isn't that a touch inflationary?

There is the Mayflower Hotel, where Client 9 booked into room 871 as George Fox, the name one of Mr Spitzer's fund-raisers.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, pictured in 1937
Franklin Roosevelt wrote that "all we have to fear is fear itself"

There is the fact that this hotel was where Franklin Delano Roosevelt allegedly wrote one of the greatest lines in American history: "All we have to fear is fear itself." He penned those words in room 776, on the floor below.

There is the business-as-usual tone of the crusading governor at his news conference, in which he reduced what appears to be the biggest sex scandal since Monica to a "minor personal matter", as if it were an in-growing toenail.

Or his promise that he would get back later to the assembled crowd of journalists with "more details", as if he was putting the finishing touches to a carbon emissions reduction programme. His apology, when it came, seemed almost begrudging.

Humble pie

Eliot Spitzer clearly took the words of the hotel guest in room 776 to heart. Fear makes you look guilty. Fear breeds fear. That may be true for stock markets, but on this occasion the governor has strayed fatally from the prescribed script.

Martha Stewart
Ms Stewart spent five months in jail for her role in a shares scandal

The crowd loves a scandal but they also lap up remorse and redemption. They want the sinner to look afraid.

They expect a large portion of humble pie, especially from a man who made a career from going after sinners. They want genuine abasement - and on that score, the governor failed to deliver on Tuesday. It could be the end of a beautiful career.

Look at Martha Stewart, the domestic make-over diva who did time for share shenanigans.

Only after five months of baking cookies for her fellow inmates in West Virginia did she find redemption, and her share price resurrection.

Just ask her, Eliot. You were New York state's attorney general at the time and your people did, after all, help to put her behind bars!

Matt Frei is the presenter of BBC World News America which airs every weekday at 0030 GMT on BBC News 24 and at 0000 GMT (1900 ET / 1600 PT) on BBC World and BBC America (for viewers outside the UK only).




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