Why is Eliot Spitzer on TV? Because disgrace doesn't stick like it used to.

By Laura Kipnis
Sunday, October 3, 2010

A question for Miss Manners: What's the appropriate waiting period after a massive public disgrace before the scandalizer in question appears on "Dancing With the Stars" or hints at a presidential run?

The process seems to have been fast-tracked lately. South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford is back from the Appalachian Trail and enjoying a 50 percent approval rating, while Sen. David Vitter (La.) of D.C. Madam fame seems poised for reelection. Even flagrant hypocrisy isn't a disqualifier for a second act. Family-values politicians exposed as adulterers (Newt Gingrich) or House leaders brought down by multiple ethics charges (Tom DeLay) don't fade gracefully from the limelight; here they are back in our living rooms, tangoing, pontificating, polishing their talk show quips. Who wasn't perversely enthralled to watch the Hammer samba away on "Dancing" last year (until felled by stress fractures in both feet)? Following DeLay's lead, teen mom turned abstinence queen Bristol Palin, who never had much of a first act, is nonetheless enjoying the fruits of a second.

When did we, as a moral community, become such doormats?

Scandals have always performed a necessary social function. The community brands and expels transgressors in humiliating, sometimes grisly ways, purifying itself in the process. Once there were public stockades and scarlet letters for this sort of thing; these days, the media shoulders most of the burden. Late-night talk show sadism and the savagery of the blogosphere are our tools of ignominy. The technology may have changed, but scandal's role remains the same: If communities are enclaves of shared norms, then shaming and shunning norm-violators is part of what makes a community.

But how can we shun them when they won't go away? An illuminating case in point: former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, a man with a world-class talent for flamboyant self-immolation. After a mortifying prostitution scandal, and following a swift, shrewd rehabilitation campaign featuring op-eds, TV appearances and a brief college teaching stint, he begins a second career as co-host of the new talk show "Parker Spitzer," starting Monday (alongside Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker). CNN hopes the show will revive its sagging ratings, and maybe it will. Spitzer is a brilliant guy and a canny political observer -- though perhaps not so brilliant and canny in every respect.

Which brings us to one of the main problems with second acts: New selves don't just spring fully fledged from the wreckage of old lives. The old, bad selves stick around to have a cackle or two.

As we've been seeing lately. The central rite of scandal redemption these days is the public introspection session, and Spitzer has gamely played along in multiple media forums. He's been interrogated on NBC's "Today" by Matt Lauer, by Newsweek's Jonathan Darman, for Peter Elkind's biography "Rough Justice" and on film in Alex Gibney's documentary "Client 9," which opens next month. Despite all this practice, however, he has not proved to be a world-class practitioner of the art of self-examination.

With Lauer, he emphasized -- three times -- that there was no excuse for his behavior, repeating the phrase "egregious violation" twice, along with four variants on "pain to others." A cynic might suspect excess media coaching, but then it's not an easy thing to go on "Today" and discuss your inner "gremlins" -- which Spitzer said he was in the process of confronting, as though he were a cartoon action hero battling malevolent mogwai.

Things only get worse when he goes for high-culture references, as in his interviews with Gibney, in which he compares himself to Icarus.

Grasping to explain the events that made all this forced introspection necessary, he blames "hubris." It's an interesting self-accusation, considering that Spitzer's favored targets, as both prosecutor and governor, were those with excess hubris. His enemies -- crooks on Wall Street and crooks in Albany -- operated as though the world were their private slush fund and the rules need not apply. Of course, Spitzer, too, acted as though no rules applied. So where did he draw the distinction? Perhaps, in the end, he didn't.

This may be why his fiercely destructive talents weren't confined to external enemies; they also, eventually, turned inward. The evidence keeps mounting, courtesy of his public mea culpa sessions, that this was a deeply divided man, so divided as to be a danger to himself. He scattered enough clues for the feds to tie him to prostitution rings; surely he knew better. When pressed by Gibney for insights about how he'd failed to anticipate the downfall he was so obviously courting, he ducks the question: "Those are the mysteries of the human mind. I don't think I can answer those questions because I don't even know."

Then he casually drops a small bombshell into the conversation. While governor, he sensed that he was under surveillance. As indeed he was: The FBI was tracking his dates with prostitutes and the clunky financial ruses he'd devised to pay the tab. How could the intuition that he was being watched fail to trigger an internal alarm?

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