Eliot Spitzer, the Harvard Club, and Blackball Ethics

Eliot Spitzer, we have learned, has been blackballed by the New York City Harvard Club. Although over 11,000 graduates of the august institution are members, and the club, which is always seeking funds and rejects an application about as frequently as its alma mater plays a decent football game, nonetheless found Spitzer wanting.

Is this a surprise to anyone? There are only a few reasons to join the Harvard Club or even tolerate it, unless one has an unhealthy affection for the stuffed heads of things Theodore Roosevelt shot, many of which are hanging on the wall. The main reason is prestige (and to let visitors know that you graduated from Harvard without having to say so). A club, by its very nature, suggests some degree of exclusivity; one’s cache from belonging to a club derives from its members. I can imagine a rational person feeling some sense of pride in belonging to a club of Harvard graduates. I cannot imagine a rational person feeling any special sense of exclusivity emanating from membership in a club that includes Eliot Spitzer.

In Michael Crichton’s last novel, now on the best seller lists (whatever that means), the hero is a 17th Century pirate who graduated from Harvard. There was no Harvard Club then, but if there were, I can’t imagine that it would have accepted his application, either. True, Hunter is a killer, a thief and vagabond, but he keeps his promises, is loyal to his employers (the British, who want to take a chunk out of Spanish treasure in Hispaniola), tells the truth, and to the extent that it is possible to be an ethical pirate, is one. Eliot Spitzer, on the other hand, after assuming the role of a crusading, anti-crime, anti-prostitution state attorney general, was entrusted by the voters of New York with the job of governor, and took an oath to uphold its laws—then immersed himself in the pleasures of exactly the kind of prostitution ring he had previously hounded, used its services on government time and with the assistance of government resources, and transported prostitutes across state lines in the process. He suffered for this, of course, losing his post, his law license, and much of his reputation. It takes only two vetoes, or blackballs, from the fifteen members of the Harvard Club’s membership committee to keep out a Harvard pirate, or a Harvard liar/felon/public-betraying governor/ hypocrite, and I doubt that it stopped at two in Spitzer’s case. If you were on the membership committee of a club that depends on its image to attract dues-paying members, would you admit Eliot Spitzer?

[I guess you would if you worked for CNN. CNN, we all know, views Spitzer as the perfect name-recognizable star to headline its new public affairs commentary program, especially since Ted Kaczynski, Harvard Class of ’62—a.k.a The Letter Bomber or Federal Bureau of Prisons # 04475–046—isn’t available (or they were afraid to open his letter accepting their offer.) CNN literally doesn’t care what your character is like or your reputation is as long as you can improve its ratings. Check out, for example, the past of Piers Morgan, who CNN has tapped to replace Larry King. The Harvard Club might not let him in either; luckily, he never attended Harvard]

Rejecting Spitzer was not only fair, it was responsible and prudent—the membership committee’s duty, in fact. Spitzer’s protestations of being abused are instructive: he noted that he has contributed to Harvard—leave it to an unethical politician to assume that a check can buy anything—and that he had been invited to speak at Harvard after his conviction.  Well, the Shah of Iran was the commencement speaker at my graduation from Old Ivy. I doubt that this meant that the Harvard Club would have wanted him as a member.

In the U.S. today, however, there are a lot of people who have accepted a false ethic that nearly any misconduct should be forgotten and forgiven, and that lasting negative consequences are inherently unfair. Here is a letter to the New York Times, chiding the Harvard Club. The author is respected novelist and lecturer Anne Bernays:

Re “One Place Where Spitzer Isn’t Forgiven: Harvard Club” (news article, Oct. 21): The decision by the Harvard Club of New York to blackball Eliot Spitzer is an out-of-touch act of vindictiveness. While in no way a fan of Mr. Spitzer’s personal behavior, I admire his determination to turn a new leaf. The only party who looks bad in this incident is the Harvard Club. Hey, guys, it’s not the 19th century anymore.

Fascinating. “An out-of-touch act of vindictiveness”…is it vindictive for the Harvard Club to refuse to admit a high-profile graduate who disgraced himself and, by association, his school? I think it is appropriate, sending a strong message to alumni that there are lifelong obligations of representing yourself as a Harvard graduate. In what way “out-of-touch”?  In the sense that Americans today have no standards, that they are hesitant to make judgments of right and wrong, that they no longer believe that breaking laws makes you less than a desirable and respectable citizen? The tip-off to Bernays’ mindset is her Clintonesque invocation of “personal behavior.” A New York governor breaking state and national laws is not personal behavior. It is professional betrayal and breach of duty. So protective are some Sixties holdovers of their youthful commitment to guiltless sex that the mere association of misconduct, no matter how despicable, with sexual activity is often deemed sufficient to excuse it.

The author admires Spitzer’s “determination to turn over a new leaf.”  Give me a break. We are watching Eliot Spitzer’s determination to repackage himself and rehabilitate his image so that he doesn’t end up working at a 7-11. I don’t blame him for that; it’s the logical thing to do. There is nothing admirable about it, however. Did Bernays expect Spitzer to become a full-time pimp?

Finally, she closes with the classic “lighten up” ethical shrug: “Hey, guys, it’s not the 19th century anymore.” I suppose this means that it is, like, uncool in 2010 to find fault with a husband, lawyer and public servant who is a major client of a prostitution ring. Who says so, and why? Even if she was right, that is a socially destructive attitude, and one that needs to be fought, not capitulated to. (By the way, the Harvard Club would probably have had no objection to admitting a regular client of prostitutes in the 19th Century, as long as the habit, which was very common, didn’t end up on the front pages.)

The Harvard Club was right to blackball Eliot Spitzer.


5 thoughts on “Eliot Spitzer, the Harvard Club, and Blackball Ethics

  1. I read this post, and you do raise some good comments Jack, in regards to ethics in general. As a Harvard grad, you have some skin in the game, and from your point of view, your opinion makes sense.

    I am a member of a Fraternal organization myself from my college years, but barely active at this particular ‘point’ in ‘time’. This does not take away from the camaraderie, current friendships and most important, the meaning and usage of Ritual in regards to what lies beneath the existence of the organization, or any. This had a big influence on my direction and worldview at the time, and the repercussions still reverberate in my life as I type.

    This being said, is a ‘club’ at Harvard similar in scope? Using the term ‘Blackball’ is what had me intrigued, and I’m wondering if that’s the reasoning behind the actions of the club.

    It is my goal in life to try to walk my talk, and so far it has not proven difficult, because I feel that my conscience has been very highly developed, thank the Omniverse™. I give full credit to Saintly Parents and a Jesuit education. But I’ve actually done a self-portrait painting regarding this, since I had a very poignant enlightening experience on the topic of Hypocrisy, that points to the famous biblical verse ‘Why do you point out the splinter in your brother’s eye, but pay no attention to the plank in your own?’

    In any case, Spritzer failed miserably in this regard… but really… isn’t it only because he got caught?

    So this touches on many interesting avenues on which to explore. As a ‘Christian Nation’ per se, where does forgiveness enter into this particular picture? Why is Hypocrisy so prevalent in our political and religious institutions… is it a modern element, or is ‘this the way it has always been’ I wonder?

    I have a feeling it’s the latter.

    Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts Absolutely. And I think that reaches across every human culture – except maybe tribal cultures.

    So do the rituals and standards we set for ourselves – are they just unreasonable for us to obtain, yet alone hold and maintain? And if prostitution were legal, taxed and regulated, and in a very much more enlightened culture Ritualized, would we even be having this discussion?

    • Blake: Yes. It’s because he got caught AND the fact that the conduct is worse when done by sitting governor and a former crusading prosecutor. As to the latter, it is different in kind. The kind of perjury Clinton engaged in in the Paula hjones triwl would not result in any sanctions for a truck As Peter says, other members may have used prostitute, but they didn’t do so while leading a state government. That matters. That makes what Spitzer did worse. The way I look at it is this: if you can’t make a commitment to be lawabiding is the four to eight years you are entrusted with executive office, then you shouldn’t accept the office—making that misdeed too.

      As for getting caught, it’s moral luck again. But we are talikng about image and reputation here, not necessarily fairness. The Governor who isn’t caught doesn’t embarrass his alma mater.

  2. Pingback: Eliot Spitzer, the Harvard Club, and Blackball Ethics « Ethics Alarms University Intro

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  4. In this, I think there is something to Blake’s point about “being caught” and having been so in such a public matter. If he had not been a crusader against prostitution, his subsequent behavior would not have been so objectionable. The element of hubris, of appearing to be well above the law, was what stings. After all, I would be willing to wager that several of the membership committee may have indulged in the “activities” themselves, and that such would not have been the sole basis for exclusion. On the other hand, the expression of hubris alone would not have been a criterion for exclusion either, since I would be willing to wager that such was not unknown in such august circles as the Harvard Club either. Rather, I suspect the origin of such rejection may have been in not wishing to create “the appearance of impropriety.” Alas, we are not French, where it is expected that politicians have families and also have mistresses (or young men for the cougars), because if we were, we would not be having this discussion.

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