Spitzer and Vitter: Equal Hypocrisy, Unequal Punishment

041108 vitter web Spitzer and Vitter: Equal Hypocrisy, Unequal PunishmentThe news that David Vitter may soon be called to testify at the trial of Deborah Jean Palfrey—more commonly known as “the D.C. madam”—serves as an important reminder: He’s still in office. And, really, in light of the bipartisan frenzy to expel Eliot Spitzer from the governorship when his ties to the Emperor’s Club were revealed, you’ve got to wonder why.

It was last July that we first learned that Vitter’s name and phone number were part of Palfrey’s client records between 1999 and 2001. The revelation came just after the statute of limitations had expired, and the Louisiana senator escaped legal liability. Instead, he acknowledged committing “a very serious sin in my past” and declared the matter settled on the grounds that he had “asked for and received forgiveness from God and my wife.”

Initially, there was some clamor for Vitter’s resignation, but he rode the storm out until the news media’s interest in the case dissipated, something that took about a week. Now, nine months later, Palfrey’s lawyers have included his name on a list of defense witnesses at her trial, raising the possibility that he will be forced to invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Again, there are some calls for him to go; but again, he figures to ride the storm out. He won’t face the voters until 2010.

That’s a far cry from the price that Spitzer paid for committing, essentially, the same crime. It was a matter of days from the first reports of his high-priced hook habit last month to his resignation and, presumably, the end of his political career. Vitter’s return to the news in the wake of Spitzer’s fall highlights the fact that the Louisiana senator has, so far, gotten away with it.

Yes, it’s true that the practical realities of politics account for some of the disparity between Spitzer’s punishment and Vitter’s. Spitzer was the central political figure in a large state, vested with a level of day-to-day responsibility and subject to a degree of scrutiny that far exceeded anything ever confronted by Vitter, a legislative backbencher. The distraction of a sex scandal called into question Spitzer’s ability to govern effectively. Vitter’s ability to cast floor votes and to show up for committee hearings, it could be argued, was not similarly compromised—although he failed to perform either function for a few days when the scandal first broke.

And it’s also true that there are technical, legal differences between the cases. Vitter, as far as anyone knows, was caught too late to be prosecuted; Spitzer’s actions fell well within the statute of limitations. Plus, Spitzer, because his hooker traveled from New York to Washington for their rendezvous, was in violation of the obscure Mann Act, a rarely enforced 100-year-old statute that makes it a federal crime to traffic a prostitute across state lines.

But these differences are not very meaningful. After all, would those who urgently and heatedly called for Spitzer’s head have really felt any different if the tryst had taken place in Syracuse instead of Washington (meaning that no federal crime would have been committed)?

What is significant is the common ground between each man’s transgressions, both legally and morally.

Both, obviously, broke the law in soliciting the services of a sex worker. And since both utilized escort services—for Spitzer it was the Emperor’s Club; for Vitter, Pamela Martin and Associates—they can both be said to have entered into a business relationship with a criminal enterprise.

And both are guilty of profound hypocrisy. Spitzer, as was endlessly noted last month, built his political career—and his landslide election campaign in 2006—on his “Mr. Clean” image—he was the ramrod straight law-and-order man who would bring some much-needed adult supervision to Albany. There’s also the fact that, in one of his headline-grabbing maneuvers as New York’s attorney general, he had very publicly taken down an upstate prostitution ring. That only made it too easy to gin up public outrage when Spitzer’s own off-hour habits were revealed.

“The reality is that no one, over the years, has been more self-righteous and unforgiving than Eliot Spitzer,” said an opportunistic Peter King, the Republican congressman from Long Island who is now eyeing a potential gubernatorial bid in 2010.

But Vitter’s hypocrisy was just as galling as Spitzer’s. The young senator, first elected in 2004, built his political rise on his image as a Christian conservative and champion of “traditional” family values, tirelessly using his wife and children as campaign props and loudly decrying those who didn’t meet his standard for moral purity. (He once likened same-sex marriage to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.)

Spitzer lost his job, and he probably deserved to. But as David Vitter nervously waits to find out if he’ll have to come face to face with the D.C. madam in a D.C. courtroom, it’s fair to ask: Why hasn’t he paid the same price?