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Client 9 and President 42: Drawing Parallels Between Spitzer and Clinton


Thursday, Mar. 13, 2008

On March 11, New York Governor Eliot Spitzer's fall from grace topped the news. Federal investigators had caught Spitzer -known to them as "Client 9" -- arranging for a prostitute named "Kristen" to meet him for an assignation at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington.

Ten years ago, in 1998, as readers will doubtless recall, a different sex scandal made headlines across the globe. Then, it was President Bill Clinton who stood in the glare of the cameras. As he finally admitted, months after the allegations first surfaced, he had engaged in an inappropriate (i.e., sexual) relationship with Monica Lewinsky, a White House intern in her early 20's.

In this column, I will consider some similarities and differences between the two scandals.

Spitzer's Fall

As Attorney General, Spitzer had pursued the prosecution of sex rings. As governor, he played a pivotal role in passing a human trafficking law that would punish prostitutes' clients. In so doing, he had evidenced an understanding for the claims of human rights organizations that sex traffic begins with demand, and that criminal penalties must therefore target consumers rather than sex workers.

As it has emerged, however, following the shocking announcement on March 11, Spitzer had himself contributed to the demand that fuels the sex trade - an industry that Spitzer had called "modern-day slavery" - and had spent tens of thousands of dollars purchasing the services of the Emperor's Club V.I.P., an online prostitution ring. Moreover, it seems he may have even put sex workers in some danger. In a conversation that followed Kristen's meeting with Spitzer, the booking agent - Temeka Lewis - told Kristen that Client 9 sometimes had requests for women "to do things that, like, you might not think were safe."

After the story broke, Spitzer confessed to having "acted in a way that violates my obligations to my family and that violates my, or any, sense of right and wrong." As of Wednesday, March 12, the 48-year-old governor had announced his resignation from office, effective March 17, at which point his current Lieutenant Governor will take his place.

Clinton's Fall

Like Spitzer's, Clinton's admission of sexual misconduct included an acknowledgment of the pain that his behavior had caused his family. Clinton also indicated that his actions were wrong. He did not, however, resign from office and allow his vice president - Al Gore - to continue the important work of running the country.

A Republican-controlled House of Representatives subsequently impeached Clinton for perjury and obstruction of justice (in connection with his misleading statements about his relationship with Lewinsky in response to questions posed in the course of Paula Jones's separate sexual harassment lawsuit against Clinton).

The Senate, however, acquitted Clinton of the charges, and he continued in office until the end of his term, though he had his license to practice law in Arkansas suspended and his membership in the U.S. Supreme Court bar revoked in the aftermath of the trial.

Similarities and Differences Between the Spitzer and Clinton Scenarios

Although both Clinton and Spitzer were brought low by sex scandals, one could draw some distinctions between the two men.

First, though both Clinton and Spitzer appeared to have been repeat players in the marital infidelity game, Clinton's conduct generally did not violate the criminal law, while Spitzer's did. I say "generally," because one woman did accuse Clinton of raping her in a hotel room in 1978, an allegation corroborated by a friend who had met with the woman immediately after the alleged attack. Clinton denied the accusations, which never faced the test of a trial. Other alleged Clinton relationships, however, appeared to qualify as consensual, at least for purposes of the criminal law (sexual harassment does, of course, raise some issues of coercion).

This distinction, however, may in some ways support a comparison between the situations in which Clinton and Spitzer have, respectively, found themselves embroiled. For the most powerful man in the world to have sexual relations with an intern (who was apparently in love with the President) might be consensual, but it does exploit a power imbalance that could hardly be more stark. Similarly, we have no evidence that Spitzer compelled Kristen or other sex workers to engage in conduct against their will. Nonetheless, the role of a prostitute - being offered to a client for his sexual gratification in exchange for money (in this case, at least $1000 an hour) - does not exactly place the man and the woman in the relationship on reciprocal footing. And, as Spitzer seemed to understand when he supported and signed the human trafficking law, coercion and brutality - toward minors and adult women - are endemic to the sex industry.

Another obvious distinction between the two scandals is that Spitzer very quickly announced his resignation, but Clinton chose to stay on and fight. Because of the extremely humiliating nature of the disclosures, and because of the sense that political foes had exploited a sex scandal for partisan gain, many of Clinton's allies sympathized with him and resisted calls for his resignation. Clinton had never claimed to be a model of sexual fidelity or propriety, after all, having previously as much as admitted cheating on his wife. In a way, then, it appeared that the humiliation of Bill Clinton was really only an attempt to destroy the Democratic Party itself. Clinton - as the Republicans' target - was therefore able to garner the loyalty of most vocal Democrats.

Spitzer, by contrast, had betrayed principles that he had strongly pressed, both as Attorney General and as Governor of New York State. Though Spitzer, too, had his political enemies, there was not the same Republican/Democratic warfare to rally the troops to his cause. Indeed, the only ally of Spitzer's in the end appeared to be his wife, Silda, who stood by his side as he confessed his misdeeds and as he announced his resignation.

Doing the Honorable Thing in the End

In retrospect, however, many of the people who once stood by Bill Clinton may have come to see things in a new light. While hardly criminal, Clinton's relationship with Lewinsky was troubling and was symptomatic of a willingness to use power to exact sexual favors, often in contexts in which his partners were apparently less enthusiastic about participating than Monica was. Perhaps more importantly, the entirely foreseeable circus surrounding Clinton's affair with Monica had the effect of distracting his and everyone else's attention from the important work of the nation.

As Clinton said on the night that he apologized to the nation, "Now it is time - in fact, it is past time to move on. We have important work to do - real opportunities to seize, real problems to solve, real security matters to face." As he did not say, it would have been far easier to accomplish that work had Clinton stepped down and allowed Al Gore to become president. In the years that followed, of course, many other things would likely have been different if Clinton had taken that route.

It is difficult to praise Eliot Spitzer for resigning, because we cannot know what he would have done if he had had more friends willing to stand by him, as Bill Clinton did. He certainly behaved recklessly, just as Clinton had, and in a manner that would - once exposed - predictably undermine the force of the work that he and others had tried to do. But in stepping down, regardless of his motives, Spitzer has acted honorably and has paved the way for a new governor, David A. Paterson, to move Albany beyond the events of the last few days.

Sherry F. Colb, a FindLaw columnist, is currently a Visiting Professor at Columbia Law School and will be joining the Cornell Law School faculty in the fall. Her book, When Sex Counts: Making Babies and Making Law, is currently available on Amazon.

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