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What I Couldn't Teach Spitzer at Harvard Law

By Susan Estrich

I met Eliot Spitzer during his first semester in law school, my first year teaching criminal law at Harvard. He was smart and ambitious, which certainly didn't set him apart from the rest of his classmates at Harvard. What did, and what brought him to my door, was that he was interested in a career in politics.

I myself was fresh from four years in Washington, the last two working in the Kennedy and Carter campaigns, and while I was barely four years older than my students, I had already learned some important lessons about how Democrats lose. So I had advice for Eliot. Go be a prosecutor, I told him. Democrats need to prove what side they're on when it comes to crime. Being a prosecutor is the way to prove you're tough.

He went to the Manhattan district attorney's office when he graduated, and later ran for attorney general. I used to joke, as I watched my former student make a name for himself, that rarely did anyone take my advice so much to heart.

Maybe he was absent the day we discussed the Mann Act. But I don't think so. I don't think this is about what he didn't know. He knew better. He just didn't think it would happen to him.

My old roommate used to call it "getting stupid." In the beginning of the story, the guy might be smart, thoughtful, good-looking and funny. But when it came to sex, she'd just shake her head. Lord, could guys get stupid or what?

That's the phrase that kept running through my head as I listened to the reports, read the affidavits and plowed through the details of the mess surrounding my very smart former student Gov. Eliot Spitzer.

How could one smart guy get that stupid?

He used his own cell phone to arrange for a prostitute to go from New York to Washington, D.C., to have sex with him. Didn't he remember the stuff I taught him about how crossing state lines and using phone wires turn things into federal crimes, about the aptly named Mann Act, which makes prostitution a federal offense when you cross state lines to do it? Eight years of prosecuting Wall Street as attorney general of New York, and he was still clumsy enough in pulling money from his own accounts that his bank noted it and alerted the authorities to suspicious transactions on his account.

The easy answer, the one I heard frequently as the story was breaking, is that men just get stupid about sex. But prostitution is -- from my vantage point as a woman and a mother -- a particularly unattractive and offensive kind of extramarital activity. I really believe it is none of my business, as a member of the public or the media, if a political or business leader has an affair. I don't sit in judgment of other people's marriages or their private lives. But prostitution isn't just sex. Prostitution objectifies the women who engage in it, dehumanizes sex and sexuality, and turns both into commodities with a price tag.

Rich, powerful men don't need to pay women to have sex; there are plenty who will do it for nothing, save the expectation that they be treated as people. I have never understood why such men prefer to pay for it. Or, more accurately, I have understood, and I think less of them for their choice. What does it say about a man that he'd rather pay for sex? That he is willing to offer nothing but money? It is the cheapest sex a man can have, a friend of mine says, which is why I find it so offensive. Both Eliot and I are big believers in personal responsibility.

Of course, the real issue isn't sex, but judgment. Ruining a career you've spent decades building, ruining your future, making yourself vulnerable to criminal punishment, humiliating yourself and your family literally in the eyes of the world, all for a few nights in the sack with a whore? Insane. Just insane.

There is only one obvious explanation for why a smart man would commit such a totally self-destructive act: He didn't think he would be caught. It wasn't worth it, and he knew that then as well as he does now. He just didn't think he'd be forced to pay the price.

One of the hardest things for parents to teach their children is that actions have consequences. Kids think they're immortal. Parents know better, which is why we hound them about not smoking, about not drinking and driving, about seatbelts and drugs and punch at parties. We want our children to grow up feeling that they are special, but not so special that they assume the rules don't apply and the odds won't catch up to them.

To run for high office, you have to view yourself a little differently than most of us view ourselves. You need to believe you have something special; you need to be able to hear your own voice all day long, see your own image, be in your own face in a way that most of us couldn't, at least not comfortably. But you also need to remember not to buy into the idea that you really are different. You have to resist the almost irresistible intoxication of power, the part of it that might leave a mere mortal believing, as 16-year-olds do, that they are something more.

Eliot Spitzer knew better, but he clearly forgot that the rules apply to everyone. Especially him. Now, the face in the mirror is the one that did him in. Poor Eliot. I do feel sorry for him. But there are some things you can't teach, some things that can only be learned through painful experience. Hubris is what it's called.

Copyright 2008, Creators Syndicate Inc.

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