F. Scott Fitzgerald once said there were no second acts in America. He hadn’t met Eliot Spitzer. Recently, the former New York governor was invited to deliver a lecture on ethics at Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Foundation Center for Ethics.
Before I get to the ethics of this matter, let me just say: I have no interest in attacking Spitzer. Nor do I hold any personal judgment against the man for the events that forced him from office in March 2008. But I do think if you’re going to speak about ethics, you had better be willing to take a long, hard look at your own actions. Instead, Spitzer stuck to a script: “From Ayn Rand to Ken Feinberg — How Quickly the Paradigm Shifts.”
Yes, I’m sure Spitzer had lots of interesting things to say about policing Wall Street. But can you imagine how much more valuable an ethics talk would have been if he’d answered the question: “How does someone — in this case a savvy prosecutor — fall into the trap of things he once railed against?”
Maybe Spitzer is still trying to figure that out. I can sympathize. Soon after my release from federal prison in the mid-90s, I spoke about ethics before a few rotary clubs. Regardless of what I had to say, my audience had a preset skepticism about whether I had a valid message to offer.
Ten years later, it’s a different story. When I speak at universities, people now understand that enough time has passed for me not to have replicated the poor choices of year’s past. I don’t sweep that past under the rug, either. I am open about the choices I made that led to incarceration. That candor provides the greatest opportunity for learning. Because you can talk about theory all day long. What matters most are lessons you can share on how others can avoid the same mistakes.
So, here’s a question worth asking: What is the appropriate lag time before someone can step out again into the public sphere and talk about ethics? Is it too soon for Spitzer? Does he need to spend a little time in anonymity — five years, ten years? — before he can speak? You tell me.