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.