Friday, March 14, 2008

With Friends Like These…

David Brooks takes a whack at Eliot Spitzer’s downfall, but oddly enough, he doesn’t mention the disgraced governor of New York by name. Instead he launches into one of his attempts at deepness by chiding all uppity, overbearing, and self-pitying politicians for not having the right kind of friends.

Every society produces its own distinct brand of social misfits, I suppose, but our social structure seems to produce significant numbers of people with rank-link imbalances. That is to say, they have all of the social skills required to improve their social rank, but none of the social skills that lead to genuine bonding. They are good at vertical relationships with mentors and bosses, but bad at horizontal relationships with friends and lovers.

Perhaps they grow up in homes with an intense success ethos and get fed into the Achievatron, the complex social machine that takes young children and molds them into Ivy League valedictorians.

They go through the oboe practice, soccer camp, homework marathon childhood. Their parent-teacher conferences are like mini-Hall of Fame enshrinements as all gather to worship at the flame of their incipient success. In high school, they enter their Alpha Geekdom. They rack up great grades and develop that coating of arrogance that forms on those who know that in the long run they will be more successful than the beauties and jocks who get dates.

Then they go into one of those fields like law, medicine or politics, where a person’s identity is defined by career rank. They develop the specific social skills that are useful on the climb up the greasy pole: the capacity to imply false intimacy; the ability to remember first names; the subtle skills of effective deference; the willingness to stand too close to other men while talking and touching them in a manly way.


But then, gradually, some cruel cosmic joke gets played on them. They realize in middle age that their grandeur is not enough and that they are lonely. The ordinariness of their intimate lives is made more painful by the exhilaration of their public success. If they were used to limits in public life, maybe it would be easier to accept the everydayness of middle-aged passion. But, of course, they are not.

And so the crisis comes. Perhaps alpha male gorillas don’t wake up in the middle of the night feeling sorry for themselves because “nobody knows the real me.” But those of us in the business of covering the great and the powerful know that human leaders have an almost limitless capacity for self-pity.

They seek to heal the hurt. Maybe they frequent prostitutes because transactional relationships are something they understand. But in other cases, they just act like complete idiots.

Eliot Spitzer ruined a perfectly good David Brooks rant because he actually acknowledged his failings, expressed his remorse with sincerity, and left quickly; there will be no Larry King interview for him. So instead Mr. Brooks takes him to task for not having bonded with friends who don’t take him too seriously — have a beer with, say — and can teach him the social graces that someone who has achieved his high rank need. Except nowhere in this essay does he provide proof that Mr. Spitzer suffered from the loneliness that he describes; all he offers is the fact that he engaged a prostitute as a sign of “transactional relationships” (cash or charge?) while speculating that being a horndog is really a cry for help. David Brooks, meet Dr. Phil.

There’s another reason Mr. Brooks leaves Mr. Spitzer’s name out. For every Eliot Spitzer or Bill Clinton that he can tut-tut over, there are four or five moralizing right-wingers such as Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, Larry Craig, Randy “Duke” Cunningham, and George Allen, just to name a few who went down in disgrace and, as opposed to Mr. Spitzer or even Mr. Clinton, blamed the media, the other party, the moon and the stars — everyone but themselves — and heaped woeful self-pity on themselves as if they were the victim. Gov. Spitzer’s initial apology and subsequent announcement of his resignation took less air time that it did for Larry Craig to get to his petulant and arrogant statement that he’s not gay. Gov. Spitzer’s hypocrisy and downfall was greeted with schadenfreude-laced glee by the Wall Street types he used to pursue and hypocritical Republicans, but their joy had to be tempered by the humble and apologetic manner in which he left the stage. They were waiting for the prideful moment, and he didn’t give it to them. But why let a perfectly good snit go to waste?