Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Gov. Spitzer's Unsuccessful Apology

Governor Eliot Spitzer (D-NY) March 10, 2008, held a brief press conference to respond to news that he had paid a prostitute for sex. This is the full text of what he said:
Good afternoon. For the past nine years, eight years as attorney general, and one as governor, I have tried to uphold a vision of progressive politics that would rebuild New York and create opportunity for all. We sought to bring real change to New York and that will continue. Today I want to briefly address a private matter. I have acted in a way that violates my obligations to my family and violates my, or any, sense of right and wrong. I apologize first and most importantly to my family. I apologize to the public, whom I promised better. I do not believe that politics in the long run is about individuals. It is about ideas, the public good, and doing what is best for the state of New York. But I have disappointed and failed to live up to the standard I expected of myself. I must now dedicate some time to regain the trust of my family. I will not be taking questions. Thank you very much. I will report back to you in short order. Thank you very much.
This scandal, of course, raises a number of issues, some perennial and some relating to Spitzer in particular:

  • Should we demand that public officials meet certain standards of good character?
  • If so, what are those standards?
  • Is breaking the law - any law - grounds for removing a public official?
  • Is committing a "victimless crime" grounds for removing a public official?
  • Is paying or receiving money for sex a "victimless crime"?
  • Does Spitzer's insistence that his governorship would maintain a higher standard of ethical behavior make this scandal more unforgivable?
  • When considering what charges could be brought against Spitzer, is it fair to be as stringent with him as he was with others when he served as an attorney general in New York? Is it hypocritical for him to expect less stringent treatment?
  • Is it desirable for the government to adopt a "get-as-good-as-give" attitude, being tough on public officials who were tough, but lenient on ones who were lenient?
What I'd like to focus on, though, is the matter of forgiveness and whether Spitzer's statement was a successful attempt to apologize for his misbehavior.

I believe his apology fails on at least two points.

First, Spitzer never clearly says what he did wrong. He says he owes apologies to his family and to the public, but he doesn't tell us what he's apologizing for. If the stories we're hearing in the news are correct, he definitely has a lot to apologize for. But it's up to him to be clear about what it is he's done wrong, not to leave us guessing why he's apologizing. Without admitting the details of how he has harmed the people he is trying to apologize to, he is only giving the appearance of being contrite, and failing to demonstrate that he understands WHY he should be contrite. This "I'm sorry for doing somethingorother" may be acceptable when it comes from children - who are still learning about moral concepts and responsibility - but it's unacceptable when it comes from an adult.

Second, Spitzer failed to appropriately handle the distinction between private versus public. He said he convened the press conference to "address a private matter". But the fact that he offered apologies to the public showed that even he knew the matter was well more than private.

In addition, at the press conference he offered an apology to his family. Though they certainly deserve an apology (at the very least), that apology should be made privately. Make the apology to the public in public; make the apology to the family in private.

Which brings up another private-versus-public issue: Spitzer's wife, Silda Wall Spitzer, stood with him at the press conference. If this were a purely private matter as he said, then there should be no need for her to attend a governor's press conference. While she is clearly a victim of the governor's behavior, apologies can be made to Mrs. Spitzer in private.

However, Gov. Spitzer probably wanted her at the press conference in order to show that, despite his misbehavior, she still supports him. And this is in keeping with the way many politicians, Gov. Spitzer included, offer their families up to the public as points in their favor. Politicians routinely parade their loved ones up on stage during campaigns, displaying their happy family life as a mark of their fitness for public office. They implicitly make the argument that, "because I have a happy, well-ordered family, I'm a good candidate for public office." Which is just to say that they offer up their private lives for public evaluation. Which is just to say that Gov. Spitzer is greatly mistaken when he describes his paying for sex as a "private matter".

(Politicians who are found out to have a not-so-happy, well-ordered family life often change their minds and say that their private life has little or no bearing on their ability to serve in public office.)

In summary, Gov. Spitzer's attempt to apologize was significantly lacking, because he remained completely unspecific about what he did wrong and failed to discern what issues were public and what issues were private. (If he'd been more specific about what he did wrong, he'd likely have done better in separating out the public and private issues.)

This doesn't bode well for him, because apology is generally the easiest component of forgiveness.

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