There are, too, second lives in politics. From Alexander Hamilton onward, wayward politicians have found ways to sufficiently redeem themselves, regardless of the offense. In 1969, Sen. Ted Kennedy's compulsions and addiction caused the death of an innocent woman. Long a critic of the power of the privileged classes, Kennedy found it very convenient, that night, to be privileged.
In thinking about Kennedy's legacy, it is not sufficient to note that, by the time he died, he had won political redemption beyond his wildest fantasies. The fact outrages those who dislike Kennedy, and it is often accepted, even uneasily, by those who embraced him later. Do not equate political redemption with popularity. They aren't the same thing. Kennedy was very liberal, and seen as such, and he was never a universally revered figure. At most, about half of Americans had a favorable view of him.
Aside from ideology, which doubtless influences perception here, there is a brutal calculus at the heart of one's assessment of Kennedy: did his latter years make up for his serious, harmful transgression? How one answers that question, I think, is as much a matter of how one views redemption.
Mark Lilla, in The Stillborn God, describes two forms of rebirth: a "Jewish" redemption where one's works and deeds promote a redeemable soul -- one that awaits the Messiah -- and a Protestant "Christian" redemption, where the expiation of one's sins are entirely the province of God, and not necessarily intelligible or accessible in our earthly lives. At the risk of bastardizing Lilla's metaphor, and the complexity of Jewish and Christian theologies, it is sufficient to say that redemption for Jews is an active, continuing process, one where doing good will hasten the coming of the Messiah.
In America, mostly Christian, we're most fond of spiritual redemption, but successfully redeemed politicians have tended towards the Jewish model -- work, work, work, work, even if, as Kennedy certainly did, they identified as a Catholic or a Christian. (I realize there is a Catholic quality to this Jewish redemption of which I write, but Lilla's "Christian" redemption is Reformationist.)
Americans tend to be skeptical when politicians, after being unmasked, put on different masks. Becoming a born-again Christian is a necessary step for some politicians, but it usually is never enough. If there's a redemptive best practice, it would be to cultivate an image of humility; be humble and gracious; and plunge yourself into work. It allowed Kennedy to rise above the limitations of his partisanship. He became more influential among his colleagues than he was outside the Senate, and yet -- that was enough.
Southern Baptist Bill Clinton's rehabilitation is a work in progress, but Jewish in its character: he keeps his mouth shut and does good works. He's not proselytizing a way of life; he's simply trying to improve the lot of the collective. And Americans, perceiving this, (and the passage of time), have shown him favor.
In some ways, Kennedy is an exception to the norm. He was so famous -- and so much a part of the political narrative at the time -- and his deed was so shocking -- and his recovery and taming so complete by the time of his death -- that he defies characterization. The trauma of Chappaquiddick stayed with the Kopechne family, but Americans, having punished Kennedy by ending his presidential ambitions, seemed to move on. For a younger generation of Americans, Kennedy was, at worst, a punchline -- the inspiration for a character on the Simpsons. Kennedy's later carousing, which didn't end, by most reports, until 1992, was fodder for comedians. The soothing effect of the passage of time cannot be underestimated.
Redeemed politicians often find it hard to talk about their transgressions, and the public, while insanely curious to hear about them, doesn't seem to judge a politician who never quite meets the apologetic threshold. I think we enjoy hearing sinners grovel for the spectacle. The behavior that comes after the apology -- that seems to matter. Words mean less than deeds. Kennedy spent the rest of his life fighting against privilege. He knew his family legacy aided his career in so many ways; he knew that its wealth and influence probably helped him avoid legal penalty; he was already ambivalent about what the Kennedy name did to those who held the legacy -- his two brothers were assassinated -- but he seems to have realized, or believed, that he would always chase expiation, that he had tarnished the family, and that he could do nothing but work, work, work, work to give back the privileges that he was afforded. It is no accident that the working poor in America see Kennedy as their hero.
Former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer's sins belong to a different category than Ted Kennedy's, but they aren't trivial. He is guilty of hurting -- no, harming -- his family and of political hypocrisy, and perhaps, if you are inclined to the view that prostitution is a universally malevolent force, he participated in the promotion of sex-trafficking. Legally, he seems to have violated the Mann Act. In New York, there are even Democrats who will go to their graves convinced that he used state troopers for his political purposes. At the time he was caught with his prostitute, Spitzer was unpopular. He had driven down his own favorability numbers by pursuing driver's licenses for illegal immigrants, by leaking information about well-regarded legislators, and by feuding and fighting, needlessly. He had taken on the most powerful union in New York, SEIU's Local 1199, and lost badly. He was seen as arrogant, obnoxious, and had no friends.
To hear the chatter, it is not out of the realm of possibility that Spitzer will one day find himself in a position of political authority, once again. Paraphrasing Abba Eban, political history teaches that men behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives. Spitzer was humiliated, naked before everyone. And, having been so exposed, he has become a politician unafraid to be himself.
Compared to his successor, David Patterson, Spitzer didn't do that bad of a job. Compared to Patterson, Spitzer was less reckless about his personal behavior, although he was more arrogant about it. Compared to, say, Rudy Giuliani ... Well, you get the idea. It's New York. Place matters, too. Mores are different in New York than in Louisiana, or in South Carolina, but redemption seems possible if and only if there is a place in public life for the sinner to meaningfully participate. No offense to Sen. Vitter, but his contributions to public discourse since the outing of his fling with a prostitute have been pedestrian, at best.
There may be a place for Spitzer. Spitzer's aggressive prosecution of Wall Street's conflicts of interests were seen as abusive at the time and largely prescient now. He has slowly re-entered public life, and not ostentatiously.
Spitzer's redemption, if it ever comes, would have to be about more than the prostitution; it would have to be about his entire performance as governor, and that is much tougher.