Eliot Spitzer's Second Act

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on April 27, 2009

Proving once and for all that there are second acts in politics, and proving that the Patron Saint for Political Second Acts–presuming that one exists–is not averse to slumming it, Eliot Spitzer is making something kinda-sorta-possibly-perhaps-resembling a comeback. Yes, you read that right. Client No. 9 is trying to travel the road to redemption.

Redemption has been given a spectacular boost thanks to a sympathetic Newsweek cover story. Like many such stories in similar situations, it pays a grudging amount of attention to the details of its subject’s fall from grace, but tries to sweep the fall from grace, and the facts surrounding it, under the rug. Newsweek asks us to forgive the former Governor of New York not because Spitzer duly scourged himself–though it tries to convince us that despite the Spitzer family’s vast wealth, despite the fact that the former Governor is now a sought-after columnist thanks to the current financial crisis, and despite the fact that the family still lives a more privileged life than most, we should feel oh-so-sorry for Eliot Spitzer–but because forgiving Spitzer would do justice to our sense of political utilitarianism. In the words of Newsweek writer Jonathan Darman:

. . . in his campaigns, first for attorney general and then governor, Spitzer articulated a new kind of progressive politics; he envisioned an activist role for government that was market-friendly but not market-obsessed—an early preview of the emerging consensus of the Obama era. It’s easy to look at the scope of the problems the country and New York state now face, and to watch the calamity that is Spitzer’s successor, David Paterson, and wonder: his wife appears to have forgiven him; why can’t we?

Oh, good grief.

First of all, whether Silda Wall Spitzer chooses to forgive her husband is between Silda Wall Spitzer and her husband. But let’s not pretend that the former Governor’s secret identity as Client No. 9 didn’t involve the didn’t entangle New York itself in his shenanigans. The whole of state government was thrown into chaos and confusion thanks to Eliot Spitzer. His fall from grace had an impact on the smooth and effective functions of government, an impact that still reverberates and continues to be deleterious. To the extent that David Paterson has, indeed, been a “calamity” as Governor, we can blame Spitzer for having inflicted that calamity upon New York. Paterson did not just happen, after all. He is not an Athena by the Hudson, sprung from the brow of some Empire State Zeus. Rather, he was plucked out of relative obscurity by Spitzer and selected as Spitzer’s running mate in the 2006 elections that made Spitzer Governor. David Paterson is in the public eye because Eliot Spitzer put him there.

To the extent that Spitzer genuinely thought that Paterson would make an effective Lieutenant Governor, and an effective Governor if called upon to serve, the fact that Paterson is now revealed to be a “calamity” reflects on Spitzer’s poor judgment just as much as it reflects on Paterson’s own failings. To the extent that Spitzer knew of Paterson’s inadequacies as a politician and as a leader, but chose him anyway in some calculated effort to preserve Spitzer’s job security–”They won’t dare get rid of me,” one almost hears Spitzer gloat. “They’d be stuck with Paterson if they tried!”–the choice bespeaks such monumental cynicism, such selfish, self-centered conniving, that it beggars belief. In any event, it does not do to put forth Spitzer and Paterson, pronounce the latter a “calamity” by comparison, and then declare that as a consequence of the false choice, we need Spitzer back more than ever. It is more accurate to state that Eliot Spitzer was forced from the Governor’s Mansion well before he expected to be. He gave New York David Paterson as his revenge. A similar statement was made concerning Richard Nixon’s bequest of Gerald Ford to the nation in the wake of the former’s resignation, but the people of New York would give their eye teeth for a Gerald Ford type these days.

Client No. 9, therefore, needs forgiveness not just from Silda Wall Spitzer, but from all of the people of New York for the chaos he inflicted, and continues to inflict, upon state government in New York. But Spitzer’s offenses do not end with mere infidelity, the solicitation of prostitution, and the havoc he has wreaked upon state government as a consequence of his inability to exercise self-control in his personal life. There are misdeeds attributable to Eliot Spitzer that do not involve wounds to the pride of his wife, and will not be dismissed even with the most fervent display of forgiveness from his wife.

Part of Spitzer’s “Untouchables” appeal came from the fact that he made a big deal–and got big press–out of busting . . . you guessed it! . . . prostitution rings while serving as the attorney general of New York. But Spitzer was also soliciting prostitution, and spending $80,000 in the process, for six years prior to getting caught. That means that Spitzer was being a john, while going after prostitution rings. The hypocrisy is staggering. Even more staggering is the fact that Spitzer, the john, signed legislation when he was Governor that increased the penalties on those who solicited prostitutes. By his personal example, Spitzer made a laughing stock of the laws he enacted, and the prosecutions he oversaw. He also made the people who supported him in these efforts look like fools. All the while, the subjects of his prosecutions had to wonder when the time would come that Eliot Spitzer would be put in the dock for having failed to live up to the moral code he espoused, and the laws he was responsible for putting on the books. Spitzer certainly hasn’t paid any price yet for his solicitation of prostitutes, and it is now impossible to believe that he ever will. Hypocritical? You betcha. But apparently, we are supposed to overlook that and allow Spitzer to rise, Lazarus-like, from the political grave he dug for himself.

And then, there were Spitzer’s petty, and not-so-petty tyrannies. As attorney general, Spitzer employed the Martin Act against his targets on Wall Street, and in doing so, engaged in spectacular abuses of power:

The purpose of the Martin Act is to arm the New York attorney general to combat financial fraud. It empowers him to subpoena any document he wants from anyone doing business in the state; to keep an investigation totally secret or to make it totally public; and to choose between filing civil or criminal charges whenever he wants. People called in for questioning during Martin Act investigations do not have a right to counsel or a right against self-incrimination. Combined, the act’s powers exceed those given any regulator in any other state.

(Emphasis mine.) You remember all those people who bemoan and decry the supposed assault on our civil liberties during the Bush Administration, right? Yeah, those people. Funny thing; those same people cheered Eliot Spitzer on as he used the Martin Act on his prey, denied them the right to counsel when he questioned them and took away their Fifth Amendment rights during the course of the questioning as well.

Let that sink in. Now, consider the following:

Now for the scary part: To win a case, the AG doesn’t have to prove that the defendant intended to defraud anyone, that a transaction took place, or that anyone actually was defrauded. Plus, when the prosecution is over, trial lawyers can gain access to the hoards of documents that the act has churned up and use them as the basis for civil suits. “It’s the legal equivalent of a weapon of mass destruction,” said a lawyer at a major New York firm who represents defendants in Martin Act cases (and who didn’t want his name used because he feared retribution by Spitzer). “The damage that can be done under the statute is unlimited.”

This, is how Spitzer made his reputation. People liked to talk of the onetime New York State attorney general as a David, fighting hordes of Wall Street Goliaths. In the Bible, however, David wielded a mere slingshot. Eliot Spitzer wielded an arsenal of ICBMs while his foes sought to protect themselves with bamboo sticks. The fight was utterly uneven, which is what tends to occur when one side abuses its power, and the other side has no power to abuse.

If one spoke out against Spitzer, then . . . well . . . this is what would happen:

. . . Consider the report in the wake of a 2005 op-ed in this newspaper by John Whitehead. A respected Wall Street figure, Mr. Whitehead dared to criticize Mr. Spitzer for his unscrupulously zealous pursuit of Mr. Greenberg. Mr. Spitzer later threatened Mr. Whitehead, telling him in a phone call that “You will pay the price. This is only the beginning and you will pay dearly for what you have done.” Some months later, after more Spitzer excesses, Mr. Whitehead had the temerity to write another op-ed describing what Mr. Spitzer had said.

Within a few days, the press was reporting (unsourced, of course) that Mr. Whitehead had defended Mr. Greenberg a few weeks after a Greenberg charity had given $25 million to the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation — a group Mr. Whitehead chaired. So Mr. Whitehead’s on-the-record views were met with an unsourced smear implying bad faith. The press ran with it anyway.

In 2005, Mr. Spitzer went on national television to suggest that Mr. Greenberg had engaged in criminal activity. It was front-page news. About six months later, on the eve of a Thanksgiving weekend, Mr. Spitzer quietly disclosed that he lacked the evidence to press criminal charges. That news was buried inside the papers.

John Whitehead was not the only target of Eliot Spitzer’s vendettas. Not by a long shot. And of course, even in the past, Spitzer’s hypocrisy when it came to obeying the law was incredible to behold:

What makes this history all the more unfortunate is that the warning signs about Mr. Spitzer were many and manifest. In the final days of Mr. Spitzer’s run for attorney general in 1998, the news broke that he’d twisted campaign-finance laws so that his father could fund his unsuccessful 1994 run. Mr. Spitzer won anyway, and the story was largely forgotten.

But didn’t Spitzer prove himself to be an effective attorney general, concerns about abuses of power notwithstanding?

Well, no:

On the substance, his court record speaks for itself. Most of Mr. Spitzer’s high-profile charges have gone up in smoke. A New York state judge threw out his case against tax firm H&R Block. He lost his prosecution against Bank of America broker Ted Sihpol (whom Mr. Spitzer threatened to arrest in front of his child and pregnant wife). Mr. Spitzer was stopped by a federal judge from prying confidential information out of mortgage companies. Another New York judge blocked the heart of his suit against Mr. Grasso. Mr. Greenberg continues to fight his civil charges. The press was foursquare behind Mr. Spitzer in all these cases, and in a better world they’d share some of his humiliation.

Needless to say, old habits died hard, and when Spitzer became Governor, the habits and practices he cultivated thrived:

Former Gov. Eliot Spitzer was deeply involved in his administration’s efforts last year to discredit the State Senate majority leader, Joseph L. Bruno, holding detailed discussions with senior aides, ordering damaging information about Mr. Bruno released, and calling an aide at home repeatedly to check on the progress, according to several people with direct knowledge of the investigation.

The governor has previously said he was not personally involved in the effort, suggesting only that he was vaguely aware that his aides had responded to a reporter’s inquiry about Mr. Bruno’s travels on state aircraft.

But testimony and other information gathered by the Albany County district attorney, P. David Soares, indicate that the governor’s participation was extensive and reflected Mr. Spitzer’s intense desire to damage Mr. Bruno, the people with knowledge of the case said.

But now, after such a short span of time, we are supposed to believe that Eliot Spitzer has changed. That he has done penance, donned his hair shirt, and purified himself so that we may approve of him without harming our consciences. Now, we are supposed to believe that Eliot Spitzer has smoothed out his rough edges, that Client No. 9, Tyrannical Eliot, Hypocritical Eliot, Incompetent Eliot, Vengeful Eliot and Just Plain Not Nice Eliot have all left the scene, leaving us Good Eliot to cherish, admire, and elevate back to political stardom.

Raise your hand if you believe that this supposed, Phoenix-like re-emergence of Eliot Spitzer is supposed to work that easily without failing the giggle test. The vicious and unethical code of conduct the former Governor so cold-bloodedly cultivated and implemented to catapult him to the top of the political heap was not a departure from Eliot Spitzer’s normal modus operandi. Rather, it was part and parcel of the way he always did business. I don’t have any problem with the proposition that you can teach an old dog new tricks. But old politicians? Ruthless, cut-throat, irresponsible, selfish, self-aggrandizing, narcissistic politicians like Eliot Spitzer suddenly learning new tricks within the mere space of a year? Give me a break.

My New Ledger colleague, Dan McLaughlin, reminds us in his excellent review of Spitzer’s legacy that the people Spitzer prosecuted as attorney general “when they fought him in court, often won, a reflection of the weakness of his cases on the merits; Spitzer’s MO depended on suing businesses who couldn’t afford the consequences of an ongoing government campaign against them and had to settle rather than fight.” There is something to be gleaned from that opposition when it comes to analyzing the Eliot Spitzer Comeback Tour. As with many of the cases he handled as attorney general, Spitzer’s case for self-rehabilitation has little to no merit to it. It will only succeed if society decides it cannot afford to devote the time and attention necessary to remember, in as much detail as possible, the destructive legacy Eliot Spitzer left behind.

It’s clear that publications like Newsweek have allowed far too many negative facts about Eliot Spitzer’s time in politics to fall down the memory hole. But that doesn’t mean we ought to succumb to a form of collective amnesia. The facts are plain. Eliot Spitzer was a disaster as a public servant. Instead of trying to re-enter the public stage, he ought to leave it for good.

Read more at Pejman Yousefzadeh’s blog.

Previous post:

Next post: