Conor Culloton, Intern

Something is rotten in the state of New York. Anthony Weiner, despite recently committing the same riotously impolitic error that caused him to resign from Congress after “Weinergate” in 2011, continues his campaign for mayor of New York City. Meanwhile, Eliot Spitzer, the man who might still be governor of New York if not for the $15,000 he spent on call girls before his own scandal in March 2008, has also decided to seek redemption with a bid for New York City Comptroller. If voters are so inclined, the top tier of New York’s municipal government could include two politicians that have survived sex scandals, and that is, to any observer, quite amazing.

In a CNN article, a New York Department of Education official named Vincent Hurst exemplified the attitude that many Americans take when assessing the sometimes mile-wide rift between the personal and professional lives of politicians, “we need to focus on the issues, not on

[Weiner’s] sex life.”  Weiner and Spitzer believe that they can be forgiven by voters, and have a chance to win their respective elections. This raises an interesting question: are Americans becoming cynical? Do we simply expect politicians to lie and cheat? Are we­­ willing to go on electing them so long as they make policy decisions that benefit us?

Maybe we are cynical. If that is the case, how do we become less cynical?

The answer lies in history. They believe once upon a time Americans had only the purest of intentions. We long for the days when patriots like Sullivan Ballou, driven by 19th century romantic fervor, were compelled to march onto the battlefields during the Civil War and make sacrifices that put nation above all. Those were the days, weren’t they? Sympathetic citizens helped slaves escape to the north using the Underground Railroad, Europeans flooded onto American shores with dreams of democracy, equality, and opportunity, and the president, a politician from Illinois of all places, earned the nickname “Honest Abe.”

Somehow, when cynical Americans get nostalgic for our history, they forget crooks like William “Boss” Tweed, a political figure whose dealings would easily fit in with today’s political chicanery. Tweed was the political boss of Tammany Hall in New York who doled out what would today be worth somewhere between $1-to-8 billion worth of patronage jobs including “manure inspector” between 1865 and 1871.

The casual corruption seen in politics during the supposedly pure, trusting 19th century could make Rod Blagojevich blush, to say nothing of Weiner and Spitzer. Yet, Sullivan Ballou certainly didn’t let crooks like Tweed make a cynic out of him. Instead, Ballou took his place in history as a model for idealism and devotion to one’s country, despite the flaws of its leaders. This is an important lesson Americans can and should learn from our nation’s history.

While the media will sensationalize our politicians’ failures, I understand how the mistakes of Spitzer, Weiner and other public figures both past and present leave Americans feeling cynical. They will continue to hold elected office, stupefy observers and drive them toward cynicism. The only way to guarantee that we do not succumb to cynicism is to combat it ourselves by realizing that, despite the irresponsible decisions and mistakes made by certain politicians, we are never beyond cultural redemption thanks to tireless optimism from the likes of Sullivan Ballou.