For years my nomination for the "Dumbest Politician" award was a Georgia state senator who decided the illegal drug business was the way to riches. The senator, a rotund man who nearly always had a big cigar in his mouth except when he was eating (think Boss Hogg in the Dukes of Hazard), arranged to meet two undercover cops he thought were South American drug kingpins.
Inside a south Georgia motel room, as I recall the story, the senator insisted that everyone should get naked to make sure no one was wearing a wire. The senator apparently didn't notice the tape recorder on a table in plain sight. The undercover agents didn't speak Spanish, so they talked to each other in pig Latin. That apparently convinced the senator they were real drug lords, and they did the deal. The senator was convicted of conspiring to import illegal drugs and went to prison.
Since then, I've realized that this Georgia legislator who fell for pig Latin was not much dumber than some of our national politicians, including presidents, when it comes to reckless behavior.
Eliot Spitzer fell from power in disgrace last week, resigning as the Democratic governor of New York after being exposed as a big spender in a prostitution ring that catered to the rich and powerful. I have no idea why Spitzer, identified as "Client No. 9,'' gambled his political future, his law license and maybe even his marriage on a fling with a 22-year-old prostitute named "Kristen'' that set him back a mere $4,300. Money, of course, is no object for Spitzer, whose father reportedly is worth $500-million. According to some news reports, he spent $80,000 on hookers.
Why would Spitzer, who has spent most of his time as state attorney general and then as governor making political enemies, do something so stupid? Probably for the same reason that even bigger politicians have risked their political fortunes for sex.
Bill Clinton almost lost his presidency for having a sexual romp with a thong-flashing White House intern in a small study off the Oval Office. The House impeached Clinton for lying to a federal grand jury about this squalid affair, but the Senate acquitted him.
President John F. Kennedy, a philander-in-chief, had an affair with a woman associated with mobsters. In those days the press looked the other way, even if J. Edgar Hoover didn't. He kept an FBI file on Kennedy's reckless sexual behavior.
Newt Gingrich, then speaker of the House, had the nerve to call for Clinton's impeachment at a time when he was having an adulterous affair with a congressional aide. He explained that the issue in Clinton's case was perjury, not sex.
Gary Hart squandered his presidential chances in 1988 after his monkey business with Donna Rice.
I remember when Washington sex scandals were more laughable than humiliating. Remember the late House speaker Wilbur Mills keeping company with a stripper named Fanne Fox, who had to be fished out of a wading pond on the Washington Mall after bailing out of Mills' car?
We're used to hearing politicians caught up in sex scandals blame booze for their sorry behavior. At least Spitzer didn't trot out that excuse. However, he did something far worse in the view of many women. He used his wife of 21 years, the mother of their three daughters, as a stoic stage prop at his two news conferences, one to admit wrongdoing, the other to announce his resignation.
Silda Spitzer, a Harvard-educated lawyer, is only the latest woman to be cast in the humiliating role political wives are expected to play when their husbands betray them and the public. She has drawn criticism for not sending her disgraced husband out to face the television cameras alone. It was her choice to make. Maybe she stood by her man out of a love others cannot understand; maybe she did it for their children's sake. We are not privy to her private hell. So we shouldn't jump to conclusions.
Unlike Hillary Clinton, she at least has not tried to make excuses for her husband's philandering. In a pathetic attempt to explain her faithless mate's wanderings, the former first lady told an interviewer in 1999 he had been psychologically "abused'' from the age of 4 in the cross-fire between his warring mother and grandmother. Oh, so that was it.
The journalist Sally Quinn wrote on washingtonpost.com last week: "I know why he (Spitzer) did what he did. Because he could. Arrogance and power are a lethal combination and men who combine both often begin to believe in their invincibility.''
She went on: "The more baffling question to me is why she did it. All I could think of, watching Silda Spitzer's defeated expression, was of Taliban women covered from head to toe in burqa, standing a few paces behind their men, appendages to their all powerful husbands . . . American women are so quick to criticize the religious traditions of others, where women take a subservient position — but are we so different?''
Of course we are. American women are free to divorce the bum. Or slap him upside the head.
Kansas City Star columnist Mary Sanchez asks us to imagine if the roles were reversed: "A politically prominent woman is caught hiring young male studs for sexual pleasure. Once the scandal was exposed, would the husband be a quiet creature of support? Or would his rage be justified?"
I think we know the answer.
Philip Gailey's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.