What Happened to Manliness?
The new moral contours of American politics.


Hadley Arkes

All of that might be said, without knowing anything about the inclinations or motives of the political wife. It would have been the right thing for Eliot Spitzer to do, even if it were the case that his wife, as it was reported, urged him not to resign. The manly thing to do here would have remained the same even if the wife in question had turned herself into a version of Lady Macbeth, or better yet, Hillary Clinton. For this is the other side of the story that has gone without remark — a sea change in the mores of public life has actually been brought about by the Clintons. The best analogy may actually come from basketball: The Harlem Globetrotters showed some remarkable, dazzling things that could be done in the handling of a basketball, in the style of shooting and dribbling and passing. With the infusion of black players into professional basketball, the style was transformed, and it would be there now, for good, for whites as well as blacks.

What we have discovered in the last week is that the Clintons imparted lessons in our political life that have indeed taken hold. That a governor, caught in Spitzer’s scandal, would even think for a moment that he had any honorable course other than resigning, would have been regarded as astonishing even into the 1990’s. That Silda Spitzer could have urged toughing it out would indicate that she is the child now of another, newer ethic. Is the calculation here that the family itself had a better chance of weathering the scandal if the husband succeeded in holding to political power? Is the family to be judged, not by the ethic it exemplifies — or degrades — but by the political position it may still command?

Or is the playbook really that of Hillary Clinton? All of the talk about standing by your man was so much persiflage, self-serving banter. She had invested in him, she had stock in him. If he went down in impeachment, that would put the mark on the whole family; it would have foreclosed her political life. That she could be elected to the Senate and be the candidate to beat for the presidential nomination are themselves signs of the stunning success of their judgment and their tenacity. Silda Spitzer has a degree from the Harvard Law School — it may well have crossed her mind that she has the wit and connections to do more beyond the position of a First Lady. And she has had the telling example of a woman, with a law degree from Yale, who managed to use the position of a First Lady as a springboard to her own career in high office. Was all of this too at stake for Mrs. Spitzer? But whether it is Silda Spitzer or someone else, the model and the path are now clearly established among people who form the political class. Hillary Clinton may not get the nomination, but the evidence of the past week confirms that she and her fella have reshaped, in an enduring way, the moral contours of political life in America.

 – Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence at Amherst College, and one of the authors of the Born-Alive Infants’ Protection Act.