What sort of flaws render a person unfit for office?
For years the American people have been told that the problem with politics lies in our public servants. They go off to Washington and forget who put them there. They arrive at the state house and regard themselves as above the law. Decency's address is Main Street; corruption's address is Pennsylvania Avenue.
So, in this election cycle, as in each one since Watergate, the people yearn for a plain-talking figure from outside the system. We want someone free of personal vice, someone who transcends daily politics, someone who personifies the values we want to teach our children.
It is a seductive vision of national salvation. It is also a dangerous half-truth. Yes, part of the problem of American politics today is the venality of some of our public servants, but another part of the problem rarely discussed is that the American people possess something of a mean streak. For all our generosity and capacity for compassion, we enjoy watching other people's public distress.
We like to watch others twist in the wind for doing what we, of course, would never do. It's not that Joe, over there, doesn't fantasize about Sports Illustrated swimsuit models – but how dare Eliot Spitzer spend $4,300 on a call girl? "Mr. Spitzer sets a terrible example for our kids," we think to ourselves, as we fill up the SUV at the 7-Eleven and glance at the latest Britney Spears magazine cover at the checkout.
Each time a public figure gets hauled in front of the cameras to become an object of ridicule, it is really the underbelly of American life on display. We see the part of the national character that treats almost anything as sport, the part that takes comfort in seeing anyone wealthier, smarter, or more successful brought low. There has always been a place in American politics for tarring and feathering the do-gooder, like Spitzer, who also happens to be flawed.