Politicians gone wild put Britney to shame

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 March, 2008, 12:00am

New York

It's been a rough couple of weeks in New York. On the east side of Manhattan, a collapsed crane caused one of the worst construction accidents in the city's history with seven people losing their lives. On Wall Street, the fifth-biggest investment bank Bear Stearns had to be rescued in a fire sale, leaving the jobs of many of its 14,000 employees in jeopardy and the city's economy facing a worsening downturn.

But none of this has made for much dinner table conversation compared to the sexual shenanigans of the area's political leaders. At lightning speed, dumbfounded New Yorkers saw Eliot Spitzer, who had been elected the state's governor on a platform of ethical reform, step down for spending thousands of dollars on call girls. Mr Spitzer's crackdown on some prostitution rings when he was New York's attorney general and the moral certainty with which he had taken on wrongdoing on Wall Street made the situation hypocritical in the extreme.

Then David Paterson, who was lieutenant governor, took the governor's reins from Mr Spitzer last Monday, only to admit within the first couple of days to having had multiple extramarital relationships. His wife also revealed an infidelity.

At the same time, neighbouring New Jersey weighed in with its own tabloid headlines. The state's former governor, Jim McGreevey, who stepped down in 2004 after announcing he was gay, said he and his divorcing wife had had three-in-a-bed sex with his former chauffeur. She denies the claim. And Sharpe James, former mayor of Newark, New Jersey, who is now on trial on federal corruption charges, was accused of helping his extramarital lover to get privileged treatment in a city land purchase.

This has all created a sense that New Yorkers are living in the middle of some kind of 'politicians gone wild' circus. Some see it all as pure entertainment; others are simply shocked at how elected politicians treat their offices.

Mr Paterson has been front and centre of the whole saga, with an updated episode coming every day. On his first day in the governor's office, he admitted to an extramarital relationship with one woman. In the following days, he had held two press conferences. One was to admit he was romantically involved with 'a number' of women and the other to announce he was repaying US$252 to his 2002 election campaign fund for two hotel stays after being questioned by the media about whether he had spent campaign money on his lovers.

The story has triggered a loud debate - are New Yorkers exhausted by the dirt-digging at a time when the state is facing a US$4.8 billion deficit and the deadline for the next budget is on April 1? Ken Sherrill, professor of political science at Hunter College, blamed the media for scrutinising politicians in the same way they do Hollywood stars. 'Britney Spears doesn't run schools and hospitals,' Professor Sherrill said. 'We are now going through a budget crisis. It is diverting people from paying attention to some of the most crucial issues on public policy.'

But Ruth Houston, an infidelity expert, doesn't think politicians should get off so easy, even on tacky private matters.

'Public figures are people we look up to and they should be held to a higher standard,' Ms Houston said.

Tomorrow: London