Tragedy, tragedy, tragedy… New York governor Eliot Spitzer resigned today, after 24 hours living in the delusion that he might be able to tough it out – a folly, it is reported, indulged by his wife, Silda Wall Spitzer – yes, yes dear reader but that’s her name – who has been the object of a mixture of sympathy and derision for standing by her man at the press conference, as everything he tells the assembled crowd deeply humiliates her. Other wives have done similar stooge duty, including the wife of New Jersey governor Jim McGreevy who had cheated on his wife with a man. Why did Silda get slandered?

Was she simply the one standing there at the exact moment that the “solid couple” press conference crossed the threshold and it became blatantly obvious how sadistic (or sado-masochistic), strange and not a little embarrassing it all was? Even on the screen, the tension is pretty unbearable and most people, the adulterer included no doubt, would prefer if the wronged wife burst in half way through yelling in Italian and stabbed him in the fat of the arm with a letter-opener.

The whole thing would be over in seconds and Spitzer or whoever could fall to the floor, bleeding profusely but not dangerously, moaning, “yes yes thank you I am a bastard I deserve this” salty tears mingling with blood, as the wife considers pushing her stilletto heel through his neck or clutching his bloody form to her bre-st, forgiving all. That would make her respected. Hell, it might even make her governor.

These options are not open to American politicians, not even in New York. Nor is any suggestion of one obvious reason why she might be happy to stand beside him – the possibility that he ain’t the only one in the marriage playing the field. Maybe they’ve got an arrangement. Maybe she lets him off the leash.

Maybe she regards it as outsourcing an unpleasant task, like getting a Haitian in to clean the grouting. Quite aside from the hypocrisy, and increasing questions about whether state funds paid for Kristen to drink the Mayflower Hotel minibar dry at $2000 an hour, the plain fact is that Spitzer would have no less chance of political survival, even if he and Ms Spitz revealed that they were happy companions who kept the wheels of marriage greased elsewhere. Betraying his wife is not Spitzer’s crime – betraying the institution of marriage is.

The only person who ever got away with that sort of idea was of course Bill Clinton – if there is ever a situation in which cosmic karma permits only person on earth to get away with it, it will always be Bill Clinton. Remember the crisis early in his run for the presidency in ’91, when Gennifer Flowers came out of the Appalachian woodwork at the behest of the right wing machine? Bill and Hillary went on 60 Minutes, the latter remarking that Bill had “caused pain in our marriage” and later that he was “a hard dog to keep on the porch”, a quote I’ve always thought summed up Team Clinton in a single image. Effectively it was an acknowledgement that Bill did what he liked and yet the show stayed on the road, and Hill’s subsequent rage at the Lewinsky affair was less at Bill’s infidelity than at his lack of self-discipline.

Americans would never accept that as a general principle – Spitzer’s sin is less the probable pain he caused another person, than blowing a big hole in the idea of stable, happy, complete marriage. As American society has become increasingly atomised, the pressure on social institutions – above all family and marriage – to preserve the fiction that modern social life is not a negotiated, partial, compromised process. Yet precisely because American social life is so atomised, divorce is pretty much as high as it’s ever been. Thus what is required is ideal marriage that floats above the real social landscape like a star on the horizon. For such people Eliot Spitzer was a perfect figure, the projected embodiment of dull suburbia onto New York City.

Spitzer was a continuation of the Rudy Giuliani’s drive to rid NYC of its sleaze – and in the process, much if its fun, excitement and creativity. In his attack on prost-tution he drew on both right wing moralising and left-liberal feminism – instituting Swedish-style laws which heavily criminalised seeking prost-tution, while leaving the prost-tute uncharged with an offence. By his own laws he’s liable for significant jail time – except that he campaigned with the local member not in New York, but in DC, where coming down hard on bought s-x would be like instituting a no-d-ckhead zone in King Street. For many, the revelation that Spitzer is lustful, foolish, driven, vainglorious, hypocritical, obsessive and concupiscent – ie is a man – is another pockmark in the self-image of the US as a “virtuous republic”, so unlike those crazy Eurotrash frogs or spankable Brits. It would be wrong to underestimate the effect this has on swinging – not that type – voters looking for the shining light from candidates, and wildly wrong to assume that it would be viewed through anything like an Australian lens where someone like Bob Hawke could become PM by sacking his girlfriend and rehiring his wife, to quote, I think, Patrick Cook.

No, Americans take these things seriously, but it’s not them it’s a tragedy for. It’s the press, desperate to keep the story running even with a dearth of new information for the same reason that schoolkids in algebra class will stay at the windows watching two dogs rooting in the playground long after the thrill has gone – because those quadrilateral equations, grim before, are unbearable now. So, with leaden feet the fourth estate plods back to its desk to talk the same old topics round and round: the white/black split in Mississippi (not as bad as suggested, though more polarised than in South Carolina), the Florida/Michigan brouhaha (increasingly likely to be a by-mail primary), staff slip-ups (after Samantha Power left the Obama campaign), former veep candidate Geraldine Ferraro has quit Clintonville after saying Obama got a free ride “cos he is black”, the floating Clinton-Obama ticket question…

And the one actual story, which is the slow leaching of support from Obama. In Pennsylvania where he’s been campaigning for a few days, the usual personal appearance effect isn’t working – in fact support is starting to flow to Hills, now around 56% to 43%. She was always the Penn state favourite, but that lead that early is hard yards for Captain Audacity. Does he have something more, some new tack? Though he would never have counted on a super tuesday slam down, he might have expected it would be done by now. He doesn’t need to win Pennsylvania but he needs to hold Hills to around a five point margin (which would give her only a net gain of about 6 delegates), to keep looking like the coming thing. Maybe he’s hoping that Hillary had one, just one, revenge shag down in Arkansas, during Bill’s dog days. Somewhere out there Little Rock’s only librarian with a mood ring and a body-shirt and some fond memories somewhere in the attic may be the key to his success.

Peter Fray

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