Spitzer and the Future of the Sex Scandal as We Know It

There might be more at stake in the race for comptroller of New York City than the future of former Gov. Eliot Spitzer. This could be a final referendum on the sex scandal as we know it, and a reboot on the level of intrusion into the private lives of public servants. Though Spitzer himself didn't necessarily see it that way when I told him so last week.

"Look, I'm not sure I'm the right person to ask, because I have a perspective that is so tailored to what I have been through. And I might separate those questions," he told me during an interview on MSNBC's Hardball.

"Have we become too intrusive? Have we lost all sense of privacy? Yes. I think that's a larger issue that we as a society need to confront, from the [National Security Agency] issues to what candidates are subjected to. I think maybe there's an important conversation there.

"Is it the end of the sex scandal? No. Am I in any way condoning what I did? Absolutely not. And so, I think those issues move in tandem and have an interesting relationship. But, certainly, the former is a conversation we should have."

Fine. Let's have it now.

I'd argue that we lose potentially good public servants when we evaluate their work capabilities through the prism of their private lives. That's not a defense of Spitzer's patronizing hookers, but rather an opinion that his inability to honor his marital vows is not necessarily a reflection of his ability to comport himself on the job.

Bill Clinton proved that compartmentalization works. His behavior with Monica Lewinsky, like Spitzer's actions, was appalling, but the public seemed to recognize the difference between his indiscretions and his ability to run the country.

According to polling for NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, conducted by Democrat Peter Hart and Republican Robert Teeter, Clinton had a 66 percent job-approval rating one month after the Lewinsky allegations were revealed. That climbed to 69 percent three days after he admitted the affair. The day he was impeached, it rose to 72 percent! Five days before he left office his approval rating was 66 percent. (For comparison, today President Obama cannot rise above 50 percent job approval.) I'm sure that if Clinton's name had appeared on the ballot in 2012, he would have bested Obama and Mitt Romney.

Arnold Schwarzenegger was likewise a case for differentiating the public from the private. While married, he fathered a child with his maid, and yet his governance of California was not marred by scandal. The public sin of former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford was to go AWOL and mislead his staff about his whereabouts -- he said hiking on the Appalachian Trail. The fact that he was with his South American mistress was his wife's business, not the public's.

Which is why I told Spitzer that while his wife should have thrown his clothes into Central Park, I didn't think his stint as Client No. 9 was a job impediment.

"Well, I like hearing that, but, again, I think I'm not the one in the right position to embrace it and say, 'Aha, you're right, and you're wrong.' I acknowledge what I did. I have paid a price."

The issue is bigger than Spitzer. Where competency is in short supply among elected officials, the public's objective should be to expand the pool to include those who have something to offer but view the scrutiny that comes with running for office as too high a price to pay.

And it's not just about sex. It's largely about intrusion.

Colin Powell would have made a great American president. Too bad he never ran. In all probability, his unwillingness was affected by stories in 1995, published in The Inquirer and Newsweek, that his wife, Alma, had taken antidepressants for a decade.

In 2012, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels was courted to seek the GOP nomination for president. It was thought that his record of turning a $200 million state deficit into a $1.3 billion surplus without raising taxes would have played well given the national economy. Too bad there was fascination in the media over his divorce and remarriage to his wife, Cheri.

One wonders how many others -- lacking the celebrity of a Powell or a Daniels but sharing their competency -- have contemplated runs for public office only to conclude that it wasn't worth it given the likely scrutiny into their private lives.

Spitzer told me:

"Five years later, I think I can ask forgiveness. I can say to the public, look at the entirety of my record as attorney general, as a prosecutor, as governor. I have erred. I have acknowledged it. I have sinned. I make no denial of that. I am asking for an opportunity to come back and serve, which is what I love to do."

Here's hoping voters cast their ballots based on his ability to serve, and not his desire to get serviced.