11 March 2008

Lo, How the Mighty, etc.

Upon learning yesterday of New York Governor Eliot Spitzer’s implication in a prostitution scandal, my first thoughts went to my goddaughter. She’s attended school with the Governor’s daughter and, like many of her classmates, accorded Mr. Spitzer the kind of admiration usually directed by girls their age at rock musicians and stars of prime-time dramas on the WB.

It’s a tough thing for anybody when a politician disappoints us, but tougher still, I suspect, for a younger person. It’s like having your heart broken by your first crush, but it’s also a rude introduction to the sordid behavior of grownups. The fact that Spitzer’s conduct taps into so many issues of sex — a dad hires hookers — at the moment when my goddaughter is figuring out what it means to be a woman, only compounds the problem. I wonder how she’s going to cope. She’s a very private person (one reason I’m not using her name here), so I’m not sure she’ll tell me.

It’s possible that her generation may be unable to experience much idealism about a politician. My goddaughter was in kindergarten when the so-called Lewinsky scandal blew up, so presumably the idea that politicians (even crusading reformers like Spitzer) have feet of clay isn’t new to her. She may even see her former hero cling to office, like Larry Craig, the Senator from Idaho who, caught in a sex scandal last year, promised to resign — but didn’t keep that promise. (Cue Groucho’s “Hello, I Must Be Going.”) Politics is a strange business, and Spitzer’s career may survive. In a way, though, that’s the problem, especially for young people.

When I was a little younger than she, Watergate was in full cry. I hadn’t admired Richard Nixon particularly. I wrote him a letter telling him that the Vietnam War was stupid, and asking him to pay more attention to ecology. (I got a very nice response from Rosemary Woods, who wasn’t yet famous.) But I’d grown up in the Cold War environment, in which the Presidency was held up in textbooks to be revered by schoolkids, and I was sorely disillusioned by Watergate. Up until that time, I’d pretty much intended to go into politics when I grew up, but during the scandal, it was the reporters, not the politicians, who were the good guys, and I threw in my lot with them. Fourteen years later, I went to work for Dan Rather. One could construe this as a happy outcome.

In recent days, another young woman, a Wellesley grad, has been complaining that she doesn’t wholeheartedly endorse any of the current Presidential candidates, and I sympathize with that, too. Based on my experience with John B. Anderson, the first candidate I supported actively, I now believe pretty firmly that any politician with whom I agree on every issue hasn’t got a chance of being elected. Holding my nose in the voting booth is something I’ve gotten used to. But politics wreaks havocs with young people’s emotions, and with their idealism, which could be so helpful and constructive to the jaded rest of society.

Nevertheless, my goddaughter has turned already toward another political figure who is stirring up the fires of her idealism — Barack Obama — and so her transition from starry-eyed enthusiast to disillusioned nose-holder may be smoother than mine. I hope so. We need people like her in this country. It’s a shame so many grownups seem intent on jerking her and her friends around.