A one-man anthology of sin
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 13 March 2008)

In any zoological collection of extreme human types, Eliot Spitzer, who resigned on Wednesday as governor of New York, would be classed among the prize specimens. He was like other ego-driven politicians, but much more so. A demagogue of towering ambition, profound anger and infinite self-importance, he was a one-man walking anthology of all the sins that accompany thoughtless power.

He bullied anyone he wanted to bully, because he knew he could get away with it. Who could stop him? Who would dare? As he famously said, he could roll over anyone.

On Monday, when everyone learned that he had been caught hiring call girls, TV commentators asked how he could make such a stupid mistake. Spitzer knew about wiretaps and scrutinized bank transactions, if anyone did.

But we were not dealing with a mistake. Spitzer knew just what he was doing. It was a question of character revealed in a world that seemed totally permissive. He must have believed that outrageous behaviour was, for a man of his stature, well within the limits.

As a prosecutor, he was famous for unscrupulous conduct. As a politician, he was imperious toward the public and insolent toward his colleagues. In 2007, as a newly elected governor with a huge majority, he went to Albany firm in the belief that he did not need to placate or persuade anyone. He could ignore the opinions of the Republican majority leader in the state senate, Roger Stone, and he seems not to have spent much time listening to David Paterson, the Democrat he chose as lieutenant-governor, who will replace him on Monday.

During 14 months in office, Spitzer's most famous piece of public policy was his decision to give driver's licences to illegal immigrants. That idea appeared out of nowhere; apparently, he had revealed it only to a few close sycophants. But polls following in its wake showed that the public considered it an outrage. Even Senator Hillary Clinton (to whom Spitzer had promised support) was forced to turn against that plan and, by implication, against Spitzer.

It was at Albany that the slow-motion tragicomedy of his life began taking shape. Politicians of both parties stared at him, hardly believing that anyone could so spectacularly miss the point of contemporary politics. It became clear that he was trying to import into the 21st century a famous idea of the 19th century, the Great Man Theory, which holds that history is made by heroic figures.

Historians turned against that approach two generations ago, when they decided that major events are the result of the slowly accumulating acts of many people, merely executed by the kings and presidents whose names go on them. There are some, like me, who still insist on taking the idea seriously because it explains so much. But it should be used only when studying historic figures. A few fools, such as Spitzer, build it into their self-images. That way lies madness, or disgrace.

Ian MacEwan's recent novel, On Chesil Beach, describes a history student who embraces, against his teacher's advice, the Great Man Theory. After studying leaders such as Caesar and Napoleon, he decides that the fates of millions can be defined by "a ruthless personality, naked opportunism and luck." I happened to be reading that on Monday, just before the news of Spitzer's disgrace appeared on my computer.

On a cable channel Tuesday night, the omnipresent Alan Dershowitz turned up to say that Spitzer had committed no significant crime and that too much fuss was being made about his mistake. I heard several others, including even a host on one channel, say they were probably blowing up a relatively insignificant story.

Are these people crazy? One of the two best-known governors in America, a man often discussed as a possible presidential candidate, had revealed in one flash of lightning the proud madness at the heart of power. There may be more important political stories to report. But not many.

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