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Spitzer Scandal: A New York Story

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/new-york-scandal.jpgGov. Eliot Spitzer, Rudy Giuliani, Jimmy Walker, Nelson A. Rockefeller (WDCpix and Library of Congress)

Every city has its own variation of political scandal.

In Los Angeles, it’s usually about complicated land grabs and water. Many people view “Chinatown” as a civic history lesson.

In Chicago, it involves basic machine corruption — fixing parking tickets, paying off building inspectors, or putting family or friends or dead people on the payroll.

In New York, it seems, the favorite scandal is sex.

How else to explain why Gov. Eliot Spitzer has thrown away his political career by hiring a woman from a high-priced prostitution ring? The former attorney general, a crime-fighter known for taking on powerful and influential figures, announced he will resign from his post, effective Monday. (Here is how the Associated Press is reporting it.) Spitzer probably thought he could get away with it since New York has a long history of overlooking the sexual escapades of its elected officials.

For example, Jimmy Walker, the city’s legendary Jazz Age mayor, was well known for late-night carousing with showgirls. In fact, he left his wife for a showgirl. The story goes that at one point Walker, an Irish Catholic was visiting a synagogue where a Jewish woman teased him for wearing a yarmulke. “What’s next, Mr. Mayor, a circumcision?” the woman said to him.

Whereupon, Walker supposedly wisecracked: “Madam, I prefer to wear mine off.”

The sex stuff continues down the decades. In 1979, former Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller died of a heart attack while engaged in extramarital hanky-panky with a 26-year-old female aide. He had gone to meet her at her apartment to work on a book. She was wearing a black evening gown for the editing session.

Just a few years ago, former police commissioner Bernard Kerik was using a two-bedroom apartment, intended to lodge weary Ground Zero rescue workers, for trysts with his lover, Judith Regan, the book publisher. At the time, Kerik was the married father of two children.

Kerik’s patron, former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, was also quite the swinger. He was carrying on with his girlfriend, Judith Nathan, while still married to his second wife, Donna Hanover, the mother of his two children. The affair was an open secret around New York – city police were providing protection for Nathan while Giuliani and Hanover were still married.

In his ill-fated campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, Giuliani and Nathan – now married – were forced to talk about their relationship, probably because the rank-and-file GOP is not as permissive as, oh, the average voter in New York City. “They met at Club Macanudo, a cigar bar on east 63rd street in May 1999,” according to an article in the New York Times. “After chatting for an hour, mostly about her working the pharmaceutical industry, Mr. Giuliani asked for her phone number, [the couple] said. She gave me a piece of paper to write it on,’ he recalled. One of our romantic little secrets is I’ve kept it all these years in my wallet.’”

The article went on to report that after they began dating, Giuliani tried to talk Nathan out of taking a vacation in Hawaii. “He said, “please, don’t go,’ [Nathan] recalled. You’ve already become too important to me.””

In a million years, I can’t imagine my own mayor – Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago – making such confessions to a woman he had just met.. He’s known as a straight-laced, almost prudish, man, who’s steadfastly loyal to his wife of over 30 years.

In this, he is a lot like the city he runs — Midwestern and square. As Frank Sinatra sang in that old standard, “Chicago,” it’s the sort of town where a man can be caught dancing with his wife.

A few years ago, the local press broke a story about the city’s park district awarding a sweetheart contract to a well-connected restaurateur to run an eatery in Millennium Park, Chicago’s hottest downtown tourist attraction. It came out that the restaurateur was carrying on with one of the park district officials — who awarded him the contract. Inside deals are standard fare in our town, but Daley was particularly furious over this one. I always figured it was because the restaurant owner had fathered an out-of-wedlock child with the park district official.

In fact, I think the whole state of Illinois is a little prudish when it comes to sex. The 2004 senatorial campaign of Jack Ryan was torpedoed when the papers reported he wanted his wife, Jeri Ryan, to go to sex clubs with him and have public sex. He was not going with a mistress or a girlfriend, mind you, he wanted to take his wife.

Apparently, we’re too uptight to approve of elected officials swinging with their own wives because the “scandal” eventually forced Ryan out of the election. This was when a young, relatively unknown state senator named Barack Obama suddenly had an easy race for a U.S. Senate seat.

If Ryan had been running in New York, that sex-club revelation probably would have been enough to clinch his election.

*Ben Joravsky is a staff writer for Chicago “Reader” newspaper, where he writes a weekly column about politics. *

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