Mark Sanford

The real problem with Eliot Spitzer's comeback

July 10, 2013: 12:24 PM ET

Does anyone care how politicians treat women?

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FORTUNE -- As a woman who votes, there are few things I'd rather kick from my consciousness more than former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer's sexual escapades. But I feel like there is one thing that we -- all of us part of the population he is so eager to serve -- should consider as he and other former philanderers run for various political offices. Namely, what their behavior says about how they view women.

First, a recap: Spitzer announced on July 8 that he would like to run for New York City comptroller, which is essentially its chief financial officer. The mighty Spitzer has fallen far for this to seem like a comeback. He flexed much more muscle as governor and attorney general of New York State. Spitzer told CBS in an interview that he wanted this new number-crunching job not for redemption, but to serve the people.

Spitzer isn't the only wayward son looking for forgiveness by way of political office. Back in May, former Congressman Anthony Weiner of Twit-pic fame announced that he would run for New York City mayor. A New York Times op-ed entitled "Anthony Weiner Doesn't Care What Everyone Thinks" suggests that remorse has no place in his campaign strategy. And who can forget Mark Sanford, who temporarily ditched his gubernatorial office and family to hang out with his soulmate on the Appalachian Trail? In May, he won a seat representing South Carolina in the House of Representatives.

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This is not great. Morality issues aside, some of these transgressions illustrate issues with power that manifest in a disturbing way. Certainly, plenty of people have power issues, but it is one thing when those result in purchasing yachts and exercising stock options, and quite another when they play out in purchasing women, as Spitzer did. Spitzer, in fact, paid for the company of numerous women from a service called the Emperors Club VIP, later unveiled by the FBI as a prostitution ring.

More telling than the transgressions is the kind of comeback, go-get-'em tone that these men use to describe their careers. "Politics is a contact sport," Spitzer told The Bill Press Show. "You need skin as thick as a rhinoceros," he told CBS in an interview.

"Look, I made some big mistakes, and I let a lot of people down," said Weiner, in a video announcing his run for mayor. "But I've also learned some tough lessons." Sanford has even invoked a higher power. "I just want to acknowledge a God not just of second chances, but third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth chances," he said, after winning his Congressional post. "I am one imperfect man saved by God's grace, but one who has a conviction on the importance of doing something about the spending in Washington, D.C."

These men talk like running for office after an affair is like being the scrappy but likeable sports hero in a Disney family comedy. There is talk of learning one's lesson, of forgiveness, but do they all, really, now think that the women in their lives deserve to be respected enough not to bear the public humiliation of their infidelity?

If the American public responds with a "boys will be boys" eye roll and votes them into office, that will add yet another piece of plaque on any efforts toward gender equality. There are many insidious ways women are considered less than equal. Even the organization of the traditional workday helps keep women down, argues Anne-Marie Slaughter, former policy director for the Secretary of State. So does language that may seem harmless. According to an organization called "Name It. Change It.," which aims to point out misogyny in the coverage of female political candidates, there's a good rule of thumb about whether or not coverage of a political candidate is sexist in nature: If changing the gender of the person mentioned changes the meaning, the statement probably enforces dangerous stereotypes.

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For example, the organization points out how in its coverage of Barbara Buono, a candidate for governor of New Jersey, the Washington Post makes news out of her wardrobe. "For all the speculation that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie gets his share of appearance-based media coverage, we've yet to read that he wore his hair in the 'Mitt Romney-fashion' or that his shoes were brown and black loafers -- which we totally think he could pull off," the article said.

Say, for example, a female candidate spent, as Spitzer allegedly did, tens of thousands of dollars on male prostitutes. Would she get away with saying that her job requires rhinoceros skin? That she is staying in the game because it is in her nature to serve?

It's hard to say, it's never happened. But the way these men have behaved toward women should influence how we view their ability to lead a population that is, give or take, 50% female.

Clearly Spitzer, Sanford, and Weiner crave power. It's up to us to decide whether they deserve it.

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