Here’s my column for this week, pre-publication:
ASK DR. DIFFERENCE
On the scale of McGreevey to Abramoff, I’d give it a Lewinsky
By Andrew Silow-Carroll
We’re happy to be joined again by Dr. Sam Difference, America’s leading expert in parsing the fine distinctions between seemingly identical phenomena. Speaking by phone from Minneapolis-St. Paul, where he is consulting in a lawsuit involving the fashion designers Isaac Mizrahi, Elie Tahari, and Issey Miyake, Dr. Difference agreed to answer our questions about the news of the day.
Q: A governor in sex trouble, an Israeli connection, a humiliated wife, a stunning news conference. What’s the difference between the McGreevey and Spitzer scandals?
A: I understand your confusion. McGreevey went outside his marriage to canoodle with a male lover; Spitzer went outside his marriage to consort with a prostitute. McGreevey’s alleged lover was an Israeli national; Spitzer’s alleged procurer holds an Israeli passport. But note the differences: McGreevey was quick to resign and garner a degree of public sympathy; Spitzer decided to weigh his options and has few if any defenders.
The big difference here is that McGreevey was able to cast his indiscretion in the name of identity politics: “I’m a gay American!” What is Spitzer supposed to declare: “I am a prostitute-loving American”? “I am a philandering New Yorker”? “My name is Elliot, and I’m a John”?
Q: We thought you might point out that Spitzer is Jewish and McGreevey is Catholic.
A: So what’s your question: Who feels guiltier? Or do you want to know who has the higher shanda fer de goyim factor? Years ago measuring the humiliation that nogoodniks bring upon the Jews was an amateur affair, but advances in social science allow us to calculate shame in what are known as Abramoff units. Considering Spitzer is Jewish, that he may have broken a law or two, and that the alleged operator of the Emperors VIP Club has an Israel connection, you might think Spitzer has a higher Abramoff score. But wait: McGreevey actually met the man he describes as his lover on a UJA mission in Israel. Both governors were involved in interfaith relationships, so that’s no help either. So let’s call it a tie: 6.3 Abramoffs each, give or take a Milken.
Q: I hear people calling for Spitzer’s head when they were ready to forgive Bill Clinton. A double standard?
A: Certainly. But consider: By allegedly consorting with prostitutes, Spitzer was breaking the law, or at least was involved in a financial arrangement with alleged lawbreakers. He is sworn to uphold said law (no small thing for a former attorney general who rode his “Untouchables” reputation into the governor’s mansion). Plus, people place a lot of trust in their chief executives. There is such a gap here between word and deed, such a display of recklessness, and such a disregard for his family that it compromises the faith New Yorkers can put in his other judgments.
As for Clinton, he broke no laws in the bedroom, although he did fail the public trust test. So why are so many ready to give him a bye, especially when Ms. Lewinsky (9.8 Abramoffs) was young enough to be his daughter?
First, many of his supporters assumed he lacked intimacy in his marriage and that he deserved an outlet. Demographers refer to such supporters as “men.”
Second, he had his fun without implicating his staff or impinging on his work life (hell, he took phone calls in flagrante).
Third, everyone knew Bubba was a bit of a rascal, so what’s the big surprise?
And fourth – well, fourth, he was so darn likeable. Clinton was like that big old dog who tracks mud all through the house, but just when you want to whap him with a newspaper, you look in his eyes and go, “Awwww.”
Spitzer has the lean, toothy look of a Doberman, the kind who lets you pet him twice but then snaps the third time, and then you make that girlish squealing sound and everyone in the lobby looks at you and some start laughing and pointing, and…where was I?
Q: Clinton vs. Spitzer.
A: Oh yes. I’m not saying it’s fair or right, but Clinton could have been running a prostitution ring and probably been reelected.
Q: So what’s the difference between a politician with eyes on the White House and a typical workaday slob when it comes to crimes and misdemeanors? Why would someone with everything to lose risk his career on a hooker?
A: You got me: I tore a tag off a mattress in 1978 and still can’t stop looking over my shoulder. But maybe, for a certain kind of ambitious person, the same drive that gets him to the top of a profession can be matched by the kind of chutzpa that leads him to tempt fate. A great sage understood this, when he said that the “greater the man, the greater his yetzer hara,” his evil inclination. Of course, the challenge of these great achievers is to battle their yetzer hara, not give in to it.
Q: Was that Rabbi Abaye, in Tractate Sukkah to the Babylonian Talmud?
A: I though it was Captain Kirk, in “The Enemy Within” episode of “Star Trek.”