The Sad Saga of Eliot Spitzer

I am watching the saga of Governor Eliot Spitzer unfold in disbelief. Spitzer was nabbed in a prostitution ring. His governorship, maybe his family life, hangs in the balance. But beyond any immediate personal or political ramifications, this saga can tell us something about our own views on leadership and imperfection. Spitzer was a rising star. For eight years as New York's attorney general, he won battles against corporate corruption, Wall Street leaders, and organized crime, so many that he took on mythic qualities. TIME magazine once called him a "crusader." 60 Minutes featured him. He won the New York governorship in a landslide. Until yesterday, some people had mentioned him as presidential timber.

On one level, Spitzer's story is similar to that of many leaders in our society. We become infatuated with them, even begin to worship them, believe they can do no wrong, assigning them qualities and expectations that too often are not humanly possible to fulfill. Meantime, the leaders themselves, mere mortals, begin to believe they actually hold mythic powers, at times exercising them with abandonment and hubris, often leading to their own demise. All this reminds me of sundry fables about young wizards, who when they finally embrace their own individual power, fail to understand its true use, and especially its limitations.

On another level, the Spitzer saga makes me think about notions of "imperfection."  I often think that in our desire to ascribe mythic qualities to leaders, we forget -- indeed, I think we actually seek to deny -- the reality that we all, including our leaders, are imperfect.  Thus when imperfections arise, we are ill-equipped to discern their true meaning to us. We want people to grovel or put forth false modesty when caught, or we want their heads. Room to gauge our failings gets squeezed out; we try to ignore the reality that human imperfection exists, until once more it is staring us right in the face and cannot be escaped.

Because of the heights to which Governor Spitzer soared, he may not be able to withstand this fall from grace. According to news accounts, the governor will resign in the coming hours or days. This will be met by many cheers, for many people took umbrage to his leadership style, and now take great delight in the public revelation of his personal imperfections.

As I write this I am thinking as well about the unfolding presidential campaign and these two notions of "leadership" and "imperfection." I often think that we seek to attach ourselves to a candidate in hopes that they will assume mythic qualities and reflect perfection. When that reality is punctured, we feel duped, jolted, even dismayed that the leader could not fulfill our expectations. And so we jump to the next carrier of our sentiments and hopes, but eventually we will be disappointed again because we refuse to root our imagination and aspirations in the reality in which we live.

Looking at Eliot Spitzer's career, I am in awe of the courage he exercised in taking on so many battles. He clearly put a stake in the ground about what he valued and he stepped forward time and again, against great odds, to pursue his aspirations. Anyone who seeks real change will be required to step forward in some way. But I am also reminded that as we act courageously we must exercise humility: that we alone cannot change the world, but that we can play a role; that in our victories we must never take more credit than is due, nor gloat in the defeat of others; and in our attempts to create change, we must know there will be times when we are wrong.

Which leads me to one final thought: I am reminded of a personal experience, of sitting once in the conference room of a foundation President's office, along with the Vice President, who turned to me and said, "But you didn’t save this community." I will never forget this moment. I turned to her, looked her in the eye, and said, "Of course, I didn’t. No one individual can. It will be the people of this community, together, who will put this town back on a better course." For me, none of us should be caught in the trap that one person will "save" us or that their words and actions are perfect.

Thus, as we engage in public life and politics, we must not let ourselves or others take on mythic qualities of leadership, no matter how good those attributes feel or seem to fit, and we must truly know that imperfection riddles us all, and that we must always keep those imperfections in mind so that we can find our way to the right place.