THE POLITICAL IS PERSONAL
For decades, I had heard that feminist saying from the Sixties, "the personal is political," meaning that issues of the family, women, children and marriage deserve policy attention. But what I hadn't realized-or had plain old forgotten until this week's Eliot Spitzer tragedy-is that the political is also personal. "The political is personal" because we all have a need to believe in our political leaders, to believe in the vision and promises that they set out for us about what our political system can accomplish, and that relationship can involve us at a very personal level, not just a dutiful one, involve us in a very personal relationship of trust and commitment. And given the recent history of the United States of America, "the political is personal" meant, in the context of support for Eliot Spitzer's gubernatorial campaign in 2006, that we could put aside the cynicism, the failed hopes, the falling support for political institutions that registers just as intensely as the falling support for every other institution in American society, and believe that his dedication to reform and to ethical changes was real, and that by working with him, we as individual citizens could make a difference also. He made us feel that his personal responsibility and initiative-not just that of our political institutions-should be matched by our own.
We felt a bit smug here in New York with the election of Eliot Spitzer-a gubernatorial election that he won with the largest plurality of votes in the history of New York state-because we were ahead of the curve that's so talked about in this year's presidential campaign discussion of hope and change. We had a governor who was already committed to reform, and was prepared to work with each of us to bring that about.
It's true that he had a disastrous first year, with approval ratings that registered new lows. But that seemed to be a matter that his massive intelligence, more attention to political relationships, and his reorganization of his top staff at the end of 2007 to make Silda Wall Spitzer one of his chief advisers, could address. Many of us went into 2008 with our approval of him reduced, but not our belief in his belief-and eventual ability to deliver-on the agenda of reform, and on the moral and personal values of leadership.
I have seen many polls this week about how the process of dealing with Eliot Spitzer's horrendous behavior should be handled, you know, the "Do you think Eliot Spitzer should resign?" type of questions. But I have not seen any polls about the personal betrayal that many people in New York felt, the inability to sleep, the sadness-all reflective of a fracturing of the personal relationship we felt with this particular political leader, and the promise of change and reform that he embodied.
It is a tribute to the enduring nature of our political institutions and the commitment of our leaders that Spitzer's resignation has already been secured, the date for the new governor's swearing-in has been arranged, and that Governor-designate David Paterson has already had his first-successful and highly reassuring-press conference. The "people's business" will go on, and it will, God willing, be well attended to. The front page headline in today's Albany Times Union, "New Leader, New Promise," says it all.
But so does today's New York Times' use of the phrase, "the mendacity of hope", in describing the Spitzer downfall, summarize our need to reflect on what we've lost. The "people's hopes," the "political is personal" nature of their involvement with the leadership of Eliot Spitzer, will take a long time to restore. His election represented, after all, a peak of trust, belief in reform, and personal commitment that had not been reached in many years in New York state. Eliot Spitzer betrayed many of his own formidable advantages and talents, but it's the betrayal of his gift for connecting people with politics-and with reform politics-- that is one of the most mournful aspects of this tragedy. Helen Desfosses
Dr. Helen R. Desfosses is Associate Professor of Public Administration and Policy at UAlbany.