The Elmer Gantry Effect

Published: March 13, 2008

By Jim Lichtman
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The bloggers, the media and everyone in-between are having a field day over the recent sex-scandal involving, soon-to-be Ex-Governor, Eliot Spitzer.

Cable news channels are bursting with lawyers, politicians, and pundits as well as former targets of Spitzer’s legal wrath – all weighing in with their own views and analysis, most of which are negative.  And there’s a part of me that can’t blame them, because at the end of the day, the only person responsible for the fall of Eliot Spitzer is Eliot Spitzer.

For much of his career, Spitzer also represented many of the best qualities of an individual on a noble mission.  He worked to end fraud and corruption on Wall Street.  He worked to hold top corporate executives accountable. He worked to clean-up prostitution rings. (This last ambition brought more than a little joy to those who were the target of his avenging spirit as New York’s attorney general.)  But most of all, Eliot Spitzer worked to return trust and confidence in government and business.   And for that, I applaud him.

Sadly, like all Greek tragedies, he had a reckless and tragic flaw:  he seemed to be attracted to the very thing he was fighting against.  The difference between Spitzer’s recklessness and that of say former President Bill Clinton is that Clinton never positioned himself as a moral authority.  Spitzer did.  Clinton never preached from the tablets about moral rectitude.  Eliot Spitzer did.

In his inaugural address in 2007, Spitzer said, “If there is a result of this momentary concentration on ethical dilemmas and failures, an opportunity to galvanize support for reform, we better seize it!”

Rereading that speech reminded me of the actions of another evangelist.

“He got to howlin’ ‘Repent!  Repent!’ and I got to moanin’ ‘Save me!  Save me!’ and the first thing I know he rammed the fear of God into me so fast I never heard my old man’s footsteps!”

In the light of a sex-scandal, it’s hard to resist comparisons between moral advocates like Spitzer and the Sinclair Lewis character Elmer Gantry.  But Gantry knowingly played the role of sermonizing scoundrel.  I want to believe that Spitzer was sincere in his efforts for ethics reform.  The fact that he allowed his flaw to defeat him only makes his case all the sadder.

The list of individuals who go from moral authority to moral hypocrite is long and distinguished:  Senators Larry Craig and David Vitter; evangelists Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggert, and more recently Ted Haggard.

But amidst the finger-wagging pundits vilifying Eliot Spitzer, there’s another lesson here:  Be very careful how you posture yourself no matter who you are or how noble your intentions. The louder the media critics, pundits and everyone else sound in bringing Spitzer to task, the more they and we become like him.

“Over the course of my public life,” Spitzer said in his resignation statement, “I have insisted – I believe correctly – that people regardless of their position or power take responsibility for their conduct.  I can and will ask no less of myself.”

While it is important to hold people accountable, let’s guard against becoming too sanctimonious, because as literary parallels go, let’s not forget this one: Never ask for whom the bell tolls, it might some day toll for thee!



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