Spitzer resignationTo watch Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s announcement of his resignation, click here. To view Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s resignation letter, click here. To watch state Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno’s statement, click here. For an interactive presentation on the scandal that led to the resignation of Gov. Eliot Spitzer, click here.
There were rumors that former New York Gov. Thomas Dewey had a bevy of mistresses. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who served as governor of New York from 1929 to 1932, strayed from his wife. President Grover Cleveland, who also served as governor of New York, acknowledged fathering a child with his mistress.
Throughout history, many powerful New York politicians have sought sex outside of marriage. But only a few have seen their careers derailed because of it.
On that count, Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who resigned Wednesday in the wake of allegations that he had been a client of a high-priced prostitution ring, stands almost alone.
“This is practically unique,” said Jim Folts, the head of reference services for the New York State Archives.
Perhaps the political figure most comparable to Spitzer is Sol Wachtler, who was chief judge of New York in 1992 when FBI agents arrested him and charged him with stalking his ex-mistress and threatening to kidnap her daughter. He spent time in prison and was disbarred.
The public accepts the sexual misadventures of its political leaders, but only up to a point, said Richard Hamm, a professor of history and public policy at the University at Albany. They may draw the line, he suggested, at criminal activity.
“We may be broadly tolerant of sexual activities, but we’re not going to have a politician do really illegal things, like violate the Mann Act or send stalking messages,” Hamm said. Even so, Hamm wondered whether Spitzer could have survived the scandal if his approval ratings were higher. But a rough first year, marked by a vicious feud with the Legislature, the Troopergate scandal and an unpopular plan to issue driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants, left him politically vulnerable.
The Mann Act, which Spitzer may have violated, makes it a felony for an individual to travel from one state to another to “engage in prostitution, or in any sexual activity for which any person can be charged with a criminal offense.”
Only one other New York governor left office because of scandal: William Sulzer, who was impeached and removed from office in 1913, on the grounds that he had failed to report campaign finance contributions. But historians suggested that Sulzer didn’t deserve this fate, that he angered the corrupt Tammany Hall politicians who supported his candidacy, and they engineered his downfall.
In the 19th century and early decades of the 20th century, prostitution and sexual affairs were more widely accepted as something men engaged in, and generally not reported by the press, Hamm said. “Years ago, this sort of thing never made the press,” he said, adding that he believed Spitzer’s alleged meetings with prostitutes would have been swept under the rug in a different era. There was a time, he said, when newspapers used such oblique, coded language to talk about sex that few articles about a sex scandal would have made any sense. But in the 1950s and 1960s, the cozy relationship between politicians and the press began to break down, with sex scandals increasingly considered fair game, Hamm said.
“Times have changed,” Folts said. “Sexual matters are explored much more openly by the press.”
Joseph Persico, a Guilderland historian who wrote a book, “The Imperial Rockefeller,” about former New York Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller, said sex scandals have long received media attention. “These stories are always red hot,” said Persico, who served as Rockefeller’s speechwriter when he was governor and then when Rockefeller served as vice president of the United States. “I don’t think the climate has changed around powerful people. In any government era, these things occur. Sin is as old as mankind. These things go on and on and on.”
Persico recalled the furor when Rockefeller died in 1979, from a heart attack at age 70. At first, it was reported that he was alone in his office. Later, however, it was revealed that he died in the presence of a 26-year-old aide. This fueled speculation about the nature of Rockefeller’s relationship with the aide.
“He left the world under rather melodramatic circumstances,” Persico said. “The coverage was certainly comparable to the Spitzer coverage. They tracked down the woman involved.” At the time, Rockefeller was retired from public life.
The circumstances of Spitzer’s downfall are much different than Rockefeller’s death, Persico said. “These were girlfriends, relationships [Rockefeller] had,” he said. “It doesn’t compare quite as shockingly to what Spitzer was caught doing.”
He said Spitzer’s involvement with the prostitution ring comes across as coarse, cruel and cold. “It’s salacious, sleazy and smutty,” he said.
Hamm said public attitudes toward prostitution have changed.
At one time, it was common for men to visit prostitutes. “Brothels were everywhere,” he said. “It wasn’t unusual. What Spitzer has done looks aberrant, but it used to be that men went to prostitutes.” He recalled reading about a prominent New York City minister who in the 1850s estimated that he had visited prostitutes five times in 20 years; that number, Hamm said, was considered low by the standards of the day.
Hamm suggested that today the media are more likely to focus on a sexual scandal than other types of wrongdoing, such as graft. “We may hear less about institutional corruption than we used to,” he said.
Other New York governors have left office, but usually for a respectable reason. Former Gov. Herbert Lehman resigned in 1942, the final year of his term, to take an appointment with the U.S. State Department.
How will Spitzer be remembered?
“This will be one of the little blips,” Hamm said. “There was this nice promising democrat named Eliot Spitzer who had a disastrous run. The democrats squandered an opportunity to capture both houses of the Legislature. It will be blamed on his personality more than anything.”
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