Thursday, March 20, 2008

Governors Gone Wild, the Rest of Us at a Loss

Published: March 20, 2008

At first, the distinctions seemed clear: One governor broke the law, the other cheated on his wife (and she, apparently, had cheated on him). One offered a short apology, the other answered every question that was asked.

Piotr Redlinski for The New York Times

Alexa Sasanow, 17, reads about Eliot Spitzer’s woes.

Piotr Redlinski for The New York Times

LOOKING FOR MORE Alfred Harris, a deacon in a Harlem church, says “righteous men” are needed for positions like governor.

Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

LESS IS BETTER Eleanor and Joseph Lifrieri of Bronxville, at a mall in White Plains, aren’t very nosy about the foibles of politicians. “Everybody’s private life belongs to them,” Eleanor says. Adds her husband: “The less you know, the better off you are.”

Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

GOING TOO FAR? Lynn Silverman says of the scrutiny given to the sexual activities of politicians, “We’ve definitely crossed a line.”

But as New Yorkers tried to make sense of it all, some found themselves questioning their own instinctive sense of right and wrong, of public and private, of how much information is too much information. Was one politician a tragic figure felled by his own hubris, the other just trying to get ahead of the Albany rumor mill? Were the late-night comedians’ jokes funny, or did they sting viewers who were angry and ashamed? Should we even be talking seriously about this stuff, normally fodder for the supermarket tabloids and “The Jerry Springer Show”?

“I think it’s important to know because it shows bad judgment, and judgment is something we want to have in our leaders,” Bruce Hammer, 44, a vice president of sales for a direct marketing firm, said of the sex scandals during his lunch hour in White Plains. “I don’t care if baseball players or singers are doing it, because it doesn’t matter. But if it’s politicians, then it’s important because we hope their judgment is going to be sound.”

Not to Lynn Silverman, who is 66 and lives in Rye Brook. “I feel like we’ve definitely crossed a line,” she said.

What a strange 10 days it has been in New York civic affairs — er, civic discourse.

Gov. Eliot Spitzer resigned amid reports that he had patronized a high-priced prostitute, only to have his replacement, David A. Paterson, turn his first news conference as governor into a confessional about extramarital affairs. And in New Jersey, the former driver of another governor who resigned over another sex scandal surfaced, telling a tale of threesomes after visits to T.G.I. Friday’s. The threesome allegation has been denied by the governor’s wife.

There has been so much to absorb that people found themselves rethinking what they thought they knew about public officials’ private lives, about role models who turn out to be less than superhuman, about hypocrisy in high places.

And some wondered whether the disclosures and the speeches — Mr. Paterson’s, in particular — were making people turn a lens on themselves and realize: Hey, I’m not perfect, either.

“If the mores don’t change, then the people who are living on the edge have to expect to be caught,” said Harriet Newman Cohen, a Manhattan divorce lawyer. “With the information explosion, Google and the BlackBerry and the blogs and the way that people can report on each other and see what other people are doing, everything is far more transparent.”

And while patronizing a prostitute is illegal, Ms. Cohen and many others noted that adultery, too, is against the law in New York State — it is a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to three months in prison. A dozen people have been charged with adultery since 1970, most of them upstate.

So while some were quick to say that Mr. Paterson had to answer only to his wife, others found that justification hard to square with the overwhelming, visceral call for Mr. Spitzer’s ouster only days before.

“If you are going to set an example, it has to be something good, something positive,” said Alfred Harris, a deacon at the Samuel’s Temple of God in Christ Baptist Church at Park Avenue and 125th Street, who said that the new governor, like the old governor, should step down. “There are enough righteous men for these positions, but we just haven’t found them yet.”

Many said there was, in effect, an implicit bargain between a public figure and the public: The public figure — whether a politician or an entertainment star — is playing a role and must realize that what he or she does in private has to be very private if it is at odds with his or her public image.

“You wonder, if you dug into a lot of governors’ or senators’ lives, what you’d really find,” said Shelley Sue Reig, who lives in Atlanta but has been following the New York scandals and posted a comment on “I don’t think it’s really fair to dig, but they have always been held to a higher standard, just like C.E.O.s of companies. They’re held to a higher standard, too.”

Even amid complaints that reading the newspaper these days seems to require taking a shower afterward, people have been captivated. IVillage, a woman-focused Web site, said that traffic on “Betrayed Spouses,” a message board set up more than five years ago, had jumped 22 percent since the reports about Mr. Spitzer appeared.

“We’re seeing ‘forgive him’ and an absolute, total lack of forgiveness,” said Deborah I. Fine, the president of IVillage. “It’s candor on steroids.”

Perhaps. But some said they had had enough of the candor, the wall-to-wall coverage, the talk shows, the tabloids. “There’s a sense of overload,” said Dr. Charles Goodstein, a clinical professor of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine.

That idea was echoed by Eleanor Lifrieri of Bronxville, N.Y., who said she wished she knew somewhat less about her state leaders.

“It’s overwhelming,” she said. “I think everybody’s private life belongs to them. What they do behind closed doors belongs to them. Everything is coming out of the closet now — all the skeletons.”

Her husband, Joseph, added, “The less you know, the better off you are.”

But Kenneth Sherrill, a political science professor at Hunter College, said there were differences between last week’s disclosures and this week’s. He said that as word spread in Albany that Mr. Paterson had acknowledged having affairs, “People slapped their hands on their foreheads, shrugged, said, ‘This, too,’ and got back to talking about how things are going to be good now that he’s governor.”

“It’s also a story of redemption and recovery: ‘In the past, we did this, we got couples counseling, we got over it,’ ” he said.

One measure of the last 10 days is that people who do not usually talk politics are talking politics. One is Jake, who is 37 and would let himself be identified by only his first name if his occupation were published.

He is a male escort.

“We’re dumbing the American people down by making politics all about girls, girls, girls,” he said. And we’re keeping qualified people from running for office because they know they’re going to be under such scrutiny.”

And then there was Ronald Martin, a homeless man sitting on the sidewalk on 42nd Street in Times Square. He was holding a piece of cardboard with a handwritten message that had syntax problems but got his point across: “I need only $4,300 so I can meet a nice girl like our Governor Spitzer.”

Sharon Otterman contributed reporting.

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