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John Q. Public | The Nation

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John Q. Public

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Just once I'd like to see a male politician caught in a sex scandal stand up there at the press conference all by himself. You want to be an alpha male with extra helpings of testosterone and appetites that cannot be denied? Fine, but if you get caught, Be. A. Man. Don't drag your wife in front of the cameras to prove how strong your marriage is. Practice saying these words: "No, darling, I could never live with myself if I let you humiliate your self in public to help my career. I know people always want to blame the wife, but this is all my fault. Besides, I don't want our children to think marriage means wives have to put up with their husband's crap--that's what prostitutes are for! No, wait..."

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Katha Pollitt
Katha Pollitt
Katha Pollitt is well known for her wit and her keen sense of both the ridiculous and the sublime. Her "Subject to...

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The law, passed in 1993 with near-unanimous support, has become an excuse for bigotry, superstition and sectarianism.

There’s no telling how far religious exemptions will go under Justice Alito’s ruling.

Silda Wall Spitzer looked so sad and stricken standing next to her husband, New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, as he issued a brief statement apologizing to his "family" and "the public"--in effect acknowledging the truth of revelations that he was Client 9, who had paid a prostitution ring called the Emperors Club VIP for (very expensive) sex. Has nothing changed since 1969, when poor Joan Kennedy faced reporters with Ted after Chappaquiddick? In just the past decade we've had, among others, Suzanne Craig, Wendy Vitter, Dina McGreevey and, of course, Hillary Clinton. I'm not saying the wife has to divorce her ethically challenged spouse, although, come to think of it, that would make a change. But just once I'd like to see her skip the press conference and fly off to Paris instead. And then I'd like to see a political husband stand by his wife when she's caught, oh, I don't know, giving a no-show job to her tennis instructor. Except that particular shoe never does end up on the masculine foot, does it? Because female politicians don't go to whorehouses, or troll for sex in public toilets, or give a top job to their completely unqualified lesbian girlfriend while pretending to have the perfect white-bread family. They are too busy finding clothes that are businesslike but not mannish, and feminine but not sexy, which takes pretty much all day. But if the roles were reversed, do you think her husband would stand up there, bravely, nobly, silently, as Cuckold 1? No, he'd be in the corner bar--or down at his lawyer's.

People may use words like stoic and dignified to describe the stand-by-your-man act, but really what they're thinking is either doormat or enabler. (Dr. Laura Schlessinger, on the Today show, to a startled Meredith Vieira: "When the wife does not focus in on the needs and the feelings sexually, personally, to make him feel like a man, to make him feel like a success, to make him feel like her hero, he's very susceptible to the charm of some other woman making him feel what he needs. And these days, women don't spend a lot of time thinking about how they can give their men what they need." This of Silda Spitzer, who gave up her career to facilitate her husband's political ambitions! If the New York Post is correct that his use of prostitutes goes back ten years, he started when his wife was raising three small children--nice.)

With Silda's ashen face still vividly in the public mind, this might not be the best moment for male bon vivants like Alan Dershowitz and Bill Maher to pooh-pooh prostitution as a trivial private matter that no one really cares about--it's just how men are. And probably I would be more sympathetic another time to the notion, expressed by some young feminists and professional sex workers, that the real victim of this scandal is "Kristen." "Whether or not she will face prison time," reads an e-mail from a coalition of sex workers, "'Kristen' has been dragged into the spotlight and will be subjected to public humiliation." Prison? Public humiliation? More likely, a spread in Playboy, a book deal and a new career teaching New Jersey house wives how to empower themselves through pole dancing.

There are a lot of things I don't understand about the governor's behavior. Like, why didn't he just take a few hundred extra dollars out of his personal checking account every few days and pay for his $4,000 good times that way, instead of channeling funds into exactly the kind of shell account he, as New York Attorney General, encouraged banks to monitor? And what was he thinking, this famously arrogant and rigid scourge of Wall Street wrongdoers, when he busted a high-end escort service in 2004 during the same period that he was reportedly a john himself? ("This was a sophisticated and lucrative operation with a multi-tiered management structure,'' he announced at the time. "It was, however, nothing more than a prostitution ring.")

Some have described Spitzer's fall as Shakespearean, but the character he most resembles is not a tragic hero like Lear or Macbeth; it's the puritanical zealot Angelo from Measure for Measure, who sets out to enforce Vienna's long-disused death penalty for extramarital sex:

You may not so extenuate his offence,
For I have had such faults; but rather tell me,
When I, that censure him, do so offend,
Let mine own judgment pattern out my death,
And nothing come in partial. Sir, he must die.

Angelo is a lustful hypocrite, far worse than the trollops and roisterers and young lovers he condemns, and he's eventually caught in a sting operation. Since the play is a comedy, his only punishment is loss of office, and marriage to the woman he jilted and who loves him despite all. Governor Spitzer, who as I finished this column resigned, with his wife once more appearing by his side, could do a lot worse. Meanwhile, his downfall means joy on Wall Street and, no doubt, satisfaction in the White House too--another Democratic pol brought low, whether or not through Republican skulduggery, as some suspect. Hillary Clinton loses a superdelegate but perhaps picks up some votes from women fed up with male politicians. And there's a promotion for Lieutenant Governor David Paterson, a well-liked liberal Democrat who's not only black but legally blind. Only in America!

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