Spring is almost upon New York, but this week the city, along with much of the country, has been swept up in schadenfreude. The reason, of course, is the spectacular fall from grace of New York’s own Elliot Spitzer, the pugnacious former district attorney who resigned the state’s governorship in disgrace this week after it emerged that he a had been client -- Client 9 to be precise -- of a high-end prostitution ring.
It would be difficult imagine a political figure more deserving of a public comeuppance. Spitzer’s political career has been marked by a combination of self-righteous zeal and an unwillingness to tolerate opposition, character traits that frequently manifested themselves in a crusading politics indistinguishable from common bullying. In a political world not lacking for populist grandstanders and demagogues, Spitzer was in a league of his own.
Examples of his excess are legion, though several stand out. As district attorney in 2005, Spitzer threatened to indict the insurance company American International Group Inc., unless the company caved to his demands that it fire its longtime CEO, the insurance industry magnate Maurice “Hank” Greenberg. Although the company complied with Spitzer’s demand, the case cast a spotlight on Spitzer’s penchant for using threats to end-run the very legal process that he was charged with upholding.
To disagree with Spitzer was to invite retribution. John Whitehead, a onetime chairman of Goldman Sachs Chairman, found out as much when he dared to publish an open-letter critical of Spitzer’s attacks on Greenberg. For speaking out, Whitehead became the next target on Spitzer’s personal hit list. As he wrote in the Wall Street Journal, shortly after his letter was published, Spitzer issued the following threat: “I will be coming after you. You will pay the price. This is only the beginning and you will pay dearly for what you have done. You will wish you had never written that letter.” Spitzer’s aides dutifully denied the quote, but it had all the hallmarks of his take-no-prisoners style.
Presented with evidence of his vindictiveness, Spitzer’s defenders countered that he was responding to a real problem -- namely, the stock-market bubble of the 1990s and the spate of high-profile cases of corporate malfeasance, the latter exemplified by Enron. There was something to this, to be sure. But if Spitzer began his anti-corporate crusade with a sincere concern for dodgy financial practices, it quickly mutated into cynicism and naked ambition. For all his invocations of the public good, the interests Spitzer seemed to care about most were his own.
Spitzer’s election as governor in November of 2006, when he was elected with nearly 70 percent of the vote, only encouraged his worst instincts. Everywhere he looked he saw enemies. The biggest by far was Republican Joseph Bruno, the majority leader of the New York state Senate, and in fighting his foe Spitzer was typically unscrupulous. Last July, for example, a Spitzer confidante, Darren Dopp, leaked to the local press that Bruno was making improper use of state helicopters to make fundraising trips to New York City. State police were soon deployed to tail Bruno and the attorney general’s office launched an investigation. But in an embarrassing blow for Spitzer, the attorney general would conclude that the only unethical behavior had issued from the governor’s office: Spitzer’s aides, including Dopp, had used the police for political ends and violated the Freedom of Information Laws in the process.
It would be out of character for Spitzer to be chastened by such a setback, and indeed he wasn’t. On the contrary, he stepped up his smear campaign against Bruno by trying to get him investigated by the Internal Revenue Service. The fact that his full-bore assault on Bruno bitterly divided the state legislature, stalling the “progressive” agenda that Spitzer claimed to champion, only strengthened the impression that he placed ego above principle.
Bruno was by no means his only target. When James Tedisco, a Republican from New York’s 110th assembly district, challenged Spitzer over his plan to issue drivers licenses to illegal aliens, he found $300,000 in state aid for his district abruptly canceled. “It’s governance by vengeance,” Tedisco remarked at the time. Spitzer’s spokesmen insisted that he was merely trimming the budget, but few familiar with the governor’s career could credit the excuse.
It is fitting, against this background, that Spitzer’s downfall has also shattered the image of ethical purity that he so militantly cultivated throughout his career. Most obviously, there is his hypocrisy. As district attorney and the head of New York’s organized crime task force, Spitzer busted several prostitution rings, including an upscale operation based in Staten Island. At the time, Spitzer sneered that the ring may have seemed like a “sophisticated and lucrative operation” but was in fact “nothing more than a prostitution ring.” Whatever one makes of the morality of prostitution, the fact that Spitzer supported one set of standards for the general public and another for himself is an apt commentary on the deficiency of his judgment.
A word must also be said about the opulence of his tastes. Notwithstanding his frequent sermons against the evils of the ultra-rich, Spitzer certainly knew how to live their lifestyle. The prostitution ring he patronized, Emperors Club VIP, charged as much than $5,500 an hour, and some estimates place his total expenditures on sex at $80,000. That Spitzer managed to indulge his fancies while also campaigning as an enemy of corruption is but another testament to his breathtaking chutzpah.
Now that he has resigned, it is still unclear that Spitzer appreciates where he went wrong. A more humble man might have limited himself to reflecting on his failings, not least the betrayal and public humiliation of his family, but Spitzer, as always, had bigger things in mind. In his farewell apology, he made sure to stress that he would continue to work for “the common good.” Never did Spitzer pause to consider whether anyone still desired to see him in that role. Until the very end, the self-deputized “Sheriff of Wall Street” was overreaching.