One of the most revealing things I have ever read about politics is Ward Just's 1976 short story "Honor, Power, Riches, Fame, and the Love of Women." It tells the tale of a congressman from upstate New York, and draws its title from Lecture 23 of Freud's General Introduction, where the father of psychiatry describes artists as those who desire—you guessed it—"honor, power, riches, fame and the love of women," but cannot win them. The artist instead creates fantasies to fill the void, and is then able to channel the fantasies into his creative work. "I believe that the aim of art is consolation, and it is the aim of politics as well; the artist and the politician are brothers," says Just's congressman narrator. In this light, the politician is driven by appetite, by longings for affection and attention that are rarely, if ever, finally fulfilled.
The route between political ambition and sexual hunger is among the shortest in human experience. Describing a campaign appearance on his behalf by Robert Kennedy, Just's narrator marvels at RFK's mastery of the crowd, his seductive power and the audience's virtually quivering thrill of attraction. Afterward, the congressman thanks Kennedy, saying it was "electrical, high-voltage." Kennedy just smiled. "It isn't electric," RFK says in the story. "Electricity has nothing to do with it. It's sexual."
Eliot Spitzer would intuitively understand Just's point. In our cover this week, Jonathan Darman draws on weeks of interviews with the fallen New York governor to paint a portrait of a wounded political animal—a man irresistibly drawn to the arena whose failings cost him one of the great prizes in American politics, the chair in Albany occupied over the centuries by John Jay and two Roosevelts. Spitzer's tragedy is that, like many of us, he has the vices of his virtues. Ambitious and tireless in public service, he was reckless and overreaching in his private life, hiring prostitutes and risking his career and his family in exchange for what he told Jon was a matter of "tension and release. And that builds up."
Why did Spitzer do it? Because, one reasonably concludes from Jon's piece, he could not help himself. He spent his life on the run, always achieving, always working, always impressing, and the engine that drove him to the highest levels of politics could not simply be turned off when the hotel-room door closed. He understood he was doing something wrong, and he knew the price he could pay. ("No question about that," he told Jon.) But hubristically, yet all too humanly, he lost control. "I thought we could handle it, and we did for a while," he says. "And then I didn't."
What does a young man (Spitzer is 49) do in a country with a short attention span and a history of forgiving bright politicians their sins (see Clinton, William Jefferson)? For now, drawing on his years as New York's attorney general—years he spent investigating the financial sector and learning the nuances of Wall Street—Spitzer is writing and doing some talking on television. He is, in other words, inching back toward the arena that he loves, and needs.
To quote Just again: "Politics is a delusive trade. In his secret heart a successful politician believes he is truly loved. Not merely supported or well liked but loved. He is father to a constituency of children, and while some of the children may be obstinate or disobedient, none of them is beyond salvation." Neither, in the view of the politician, is the politician himself.