As I write this it is Easter, season of confession and atonement, sacrifice and resurrection, a time to celebrate miracles and renew faith in innocence.
I speak, of course, of politics and of politicians, mortals of whom we expect sin yet demand innocence; people who, being mortals, rarely live down to our expectations or up to our demands.
Start with the obvious: According to a survey reported in USA Today last week, 87 percent of Americans believe in the existence of sin. Transgressive sex tops the list of no-nos, with 81 percent checking the box next to adultery, and 56, 52 and 50 percent, respectively, coming down on abortion, homosexual behavior and the use of pornography. A majority also cites cheating on your taxes as sinful. From which we may conclude that America is a nation of hypocrites, self-justifiers and wishful thinkers.
Still, in an era when church and state tryst as promiscuously as former New York Governor Elliot Spitzer did with his platinum-card call girls, keeping a halo affixed about the head is a requisite of public service. Thus, post-Spitzergate, a compulsory political ritual has been born: the pre-inaugural, preemptive moral cleansing, a sort of baptism, like the one staged by Spitzer’s successor, David Paterson. Upon taking the oath of office, Paterson announced that he too had strayed from his marital vows — though he was quick to point out that he hadn’t paid for his pleasures or spent campaign or public funds on the hotel bills.
The commentariat chalked up Paterson’s speedy acquittal in the court of public opinion to the fact that he’s a nice guy, unlike the prickly and publicly prudish Spitzer. But I think something else saved Paterson: the pitch-perfect religio-political hymn he sang at the podium, a story that located his erotic wanderings within the realm of marriage and family. Sex at Upper Manhattan’s Days Inn was not hungry, kinky or anonymous. No, Paterson’s couplings were emotional, mobilized by the hurt and anger of strained monogamous commitment. But hard work — counseling — led to reconciliation. The family was reunited. Amen!
The story gained an aura of almost harmonious domesticity when Paterson’s wife, Michelle, confessed her own dalliances. “Like most marriages, you go through certain difficult periods,” she told the press. “What’s important is for your kids to see you worked them out.”
So there you had it: a 21st-century, family-friendly Easter passion, replete with sacrilized love and worldly rejection, doubt and confession, death and rebirth — all that plus a refreshing splash, thanks to Michelle, of reality.
As if that weren’t enough, Paterson added romance to the tale. “We were very much in love with each other when we got married,” he said. “We’re very much in love with each other now.” That marriage is about erotic love first and last — and not (to name a few) property, children, ambition, shared values or domestic comfort — is part of the fable we tell ourselves, and the reason we’re amazed anew each time a public spouse stays with an unfaithful partner. (Actually, most marriages don’t break up after an infidelity.)
Americans, unlike virtually everyone else in the world, require that any saga of lust trumping monogamy feature a sinner and an innocent — or, in the secular legal language with which America expresses its religious convictions, a perpetrator and a victim. So the popular takeaway message of the Spitzer scandal (buttressed by the rap sheets of Clinton, Craig, McGreevy, Vitter, Hart and every other philanderer back to Henry VIII) is this: Men are dogs (I Googled the phrase and got 1820 hits in the last month) and women are their victims; angels.
Men are dogs, the logic continues, because men want sex, whereas women are angels because women want love. Mr. Nice Guy Paterson reminded us that men also want love. But nobody, least of all Michelle, could allow that women sometimes just want to fuck.
Still, in these last weeks, a good victim has been hard to find.
Not just Michelle Paterson, but Silda Spitzer, too, has failed to fit the bill. Rumor has it that the Spitzers had a sexy marriage. The papers reported that she urged Elliot to fight back when the charges first emerged. How do we know she didn’t know about his pecadillos? Sure, she looked stunned at that podium — but I’d put money on her rejection of the New York Post’s advice: “Steamroll this Lousy Bum, Silda.”
She probably isn’t going to listen to Dina Matos McGreevey, either. The former wife of New Jersey Governor James “I am a gay American” McGreevy (a.k.a. the “Love Gov”) proffered sisterly solidarity along with a plug for her own pathographic memoir, Silent Partner, in every available media outlet.
But Dina’s bona fides as a victim started crumbling almost immediately. Into the scrum one Theodore Pedersen, a fresh-faced aide to the former governor, dropped the Molotov cocktail that he and the McGreevys had enjoyed regular threesomes — “Friday Night Specials,” they allegedly called them. Pedersen told the Star-Ledger he spoke up because he found it “offensive” to watch Dina “playing the victim. She’s trying to make this a payday for herself.” In a huff, he added, “I was her Silent Partner.” No fury like a boy toy scorned.
As for Spitzer’s erstwhile consort, “Kristin,” at $1000 per hour, it was a stretch even for anti-porn crusader Melissa Farley to call her a victim (though she managed). By the end of the week, the aspiring singer whose stage name is Ashley Alexandra Dupré had logged $250,000 worth of downloads of her song “What We Want” and heard it played on Z-100 radio. There is no bad publicity, and now that we’ve seen Paris (Hilton), no better publicity than a little e-peddled pussy.
In short, it’s been a tough couple of weeks for anyone insisting that life divides into two impervious categories, sin and innocence.
The biggest challenge to this duality, though, did not involve sex. It was about race: Barack Obama’s address, “A More Perfect Union,” delivered March 18. The speech started out to staunch the hysteria stirred by videos of Obama’s pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, denouncing white racism. Then it became much more: Some are calling it the most straightforward discussion of race in American presidential history (which doesn’t say much for American presidential history).
For those who haven’t heard or read the whole thing — and I urge you to do so — Obama basically said that racism is real, that the legacy of slavery is far from played out, and that African-Americans aren’t making this stuff up. He acknowledged why some white people are resentful: They feel they’re paying, through affirmative action or school busing, to redress a historic crime they did not personally commit.
Then, gently, Obama let no one off the hook. Reprising his campaign theme, he exhorted all Americans to look beyond racial division and suspicion, and to work together to better this imperfect union. I admit it made me cry.
The next day, the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war, George W. Bush took the stage to defend the invasion and extol the wisdom of staying on indefinitely. He rehearsed the old arguments: The terrorists are evil — they “kill the innocent.” America is good, freedom-loving. Georgie looked distracted. During the 17-minute address, he frequently glanced to the side, as if to ask his handlers, “Can I be excused now?” He ended his remarks with the usual, “May God bless America.”
It was then that I realized what was so encouraging about Obama’s address. Not the forthright statement, apparently news to some white folks, that America is not innocent of racism. Not even the vision that we can get beyond racism. Rather, in a speech about the “sin of slavery” — and slavery is one institution that unambiguously deserves to be called sinful — he told us that sin and innocence, perpetrator and victim, are no longer sufficient political categories. Not symbolically, not socially, and not strategically.
In a speech both criticizing and defending a Christian “spiritual adviser” slimed not for his religiosity but for his insufficient patriotism, Obama rejected the Christian moral certainties that have dominated American political discourse and policy for a quarter-century. This devout Christian son of an agnostic and a Muslim spoke up for ambiguity, for honesty, and for facing complexity. In so doing, he moved us one badly needed step toward secular revival.
Barack did that for race — no mean task. Now, if he could only give a speech about sex.