Politics & Policy

Bad Mood Rising

Schadenfreude takes the news by storm.

It was a good week — exceedingly good — for Schadenfreude, which is one of those words that you had to italicize not that long ago but that has, lately, become a part of the street vocabulary. As in, “Man, wasn’t that was some heavy Schadenfreude? You know, all that you-know-what that came down. First, on Spitzer; then Dickie Scruggs; and, finally, Bear Sterns.”

Eliot Spitzer was on track, some said, to make history as the first Jewish president of the United States but will, instead, be remembered as the infamous “Client #9.” The response to his spectacular downfall has been nothing short of gleeful, even bordering on the obscene. Does Sirius Satellite Radio really need to launch a special all-Spitzer-all-the-time channel called, inevitably, “Client #9”?

The man, after all, has precious few defenders; Alan Dershowitz is the most conspicuous, but then again, his defense of O. J. Simpson renders his support a little less powerful. Kicking Spitzer while he is so thoroughly down and without defenders takes on a sheen of self-righteousness, which was one of the things his critics found so objectionable in the man. Turns out, he is just another sinner.

In Vermont, where I live, a couple of the papers tried to find a large lesson in Spitzer’s disgrace. Inevitable, perhaps, as Spitzer, in his first public statement about his troubles, said “I have tried to uphold a vision of progressive politics that would rebuild New York and create opportunity for all.”

“Progressive,” is a word that, in Vermont, does not describe a mere political program or agenda, but a moral vision. Progressives see their role not as custodial but redemptive; salvation through politics is their game. The Rutland Herald, a paper that won a Pulitzer for its editorials in support of civil unions legislation, described the Spitzer scandal as a “Mythic Fall.” Spitzer himself almost certainly agrees. As champion of the Progressive Crusade to make the world a better place through politics, he and his fellow political crusaders saw a fearless leader willing to do whatever necessary to solve the world’s problems. His fall is the fall of a hero — tragic, but epic.

Another Vermont newspaper had a slightly different take. “You can always judge a man by the enemies he makes,” read the opening line of the Brattleboro Reformer’s editorial on l’affaire Spitzer. Brattleboro is the Vermont town famous for voting to indict and arrest Bush and Cheney and, also, at a less sublime altitude, for being a place where they argue about whether people have a right to wander nude in the streets. Brattleboro is the urban epicenter of Vermont-style Progressivism and even after his disgrace, the Reformer was still celebrating Spitzer as a man who bravely “cleaned up Wall Street to make the game a little less rigged for individual investors.”

The Brattleboro Reformer editorial writer was especially incensed by reports of Wall Streeters celebrating Spitzer’s downfall — so much so that he lost his grammatical grip, concluding on this note:

After the tongue clucking and finger wagging is over, and after the cheers from the brokers die down, it is worth remembering Spitzer’s legacy — making Wall Street a little more safer [sic] for the little guy.

Well, not so fast there. If Wall Street is now “more safer,” then it is only the little guy who is the beneficiary. A few days after Spitzer resigned, Bear Stearns went down in flames. Shares of the firm had been trading at about $160 just a few months ago. After last week’s meltdown, J. P. Morgan bought the firm out, paying two bucks a share. The news, no doubt, warmed hearts all over Brattleboro and other Progressive precincts.

Funny how the Progressives always seem to be wrapped up in the chains of the past. In their minds, it is forever 1929, and Wall Street is perpetually putting the boot to the little guy. If you are a charlatan on the make, then pick Wall Street for your enemy. Worked for Spitzer — and for that matter for Dickie Scruggs, who made a career and a fortune out of being the common man’s last line of defense against the rapacious corporations. He sued ‘em, class-action style, and made billions. He was the hero-litigator right out of Grisham who, incidentally, was his friend. But it turns out that Scruggs was flawed, too. Last week he copped to bribing a judge and may now do time. Maybe he and Spitzer can share a cell at some country-club prison and commiserate over the injustice of it all. Grisham may even get a novel out of it.

A good week, then, for Schadenfreuders of all political persuasions. And who knows — maybe we are witnessing a long-term trend. Barack Obama’s credentials as a transmogrifying figure are getting tarnished by his association with a preacher who seldom uses “faith, hope, and charity,” as his text.

Those of us who spend too much time following sports saw the early signs a little more than a month back when the Giants won the Super Bowl. But it could be that this is too much of a good thing. Is there a German word for “enough, already?”

Geoffrey Norman is editor of vermonttiger.com.

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