A Fall From White Knight to Client 9
He stands close to ruin’s precipice, this tireless crusader and once-charmed politician reduced to a notation on a federal affidavit: Client 9.
The ascent and descent of Eliot Spitzer’s career have been dizzying. He was the brainy kid who graduated from Princeton and Harvard Law School and became an avenging state attorney general, hunting down Wall Street malefactors with a moralistic fervor that sounded pitch-perfect. Everywhere he found “betrayals of the public trust” that were “shocking” and “criminal.”
Then he ran for governor in 2006 and seized a vast electoral mandate. Reformers chortled at the thought of this young bull with a national reputation stomping about the calcified halls of Albany.
Mr. Spitzer cast himself, self-consciously, as the alpha male, with a belief in the clarifying power of confrontation. Long predawn runs, fierce basketball games: He did nothing at half-speed. “Listen, I’m a steamroller,” he told a State Assembly leader in his first days as governor, adding an unprintable adjective into the mix for emphasis.
Soon enough, his enemies and even admirers and friends came to affix another adjective to his name: reckless. So often the new governor seemed to accumulate enemies for sport, to threaten rivals with destruction when an artful compromise and a disingenuous slap on the back might do just as well.
“I am not naturally suited to this job,” he told a reporter recently, and perhaps he knew more than he was letting on.
The tawdry nature of his current troubles — to be caught on tape arranging a hotel-room liaison with a high-priced call girl, according to law enforcement officials — shocked even his harshest critics, though not all were surprised that he would risk so much.
“Here’s a guy who won an overwhelming electoral landslide and has inflicted fatal wounds on himself publicly and privately,” said Douglas A. Muzzio, a political scientist at Baruch College and a student of the state’s politics. “I’m not a psychologist, but this is just utterly, completely reckless.”
In fact, Mr. Spitzer’s path through public life has at times resembled a blindfolded dash along the political I-beam.
He was not the first politician to burn with a moral fervor; but he sometimes failed to recognize that his own footsteps could fall in ethically dodgy territory. In 1994, he denied — and later acknowledged — secretly borrowing millions of dollars from his father to finance an unsuccessful run in the Democratic primary for state attorney general. Mr. Spitzer the prosecutor might have pursued this sort of behavior as possibly illegal.
The Republicans complained, yet he sidestepped questions and won election to the office four years later.
As attorney general, his ambition, intelligence and energy were palpable. And his timing was impeccable. A gilded, stock-fed decade was winding down, and a torrent of too-easy cash had eroded the financial controls inside many investment banks, brokerages and insurance companies.
Mr. Spitzer cast himself as Wall Street’s new sheriff and took off at full gallop after his quarry. To his young lawyers, he offered his standard advice: “If you’ve got it, do it.” If they could turn old laws to new, even unintended purposes, so much the better.
His mastery of this style of justice was evident. Employing aggressive tactics, threatening to crush his opponents, his office extracted vast civil settlements from defendants eager to avoid criminal indictment.
But his style wed toughness to what looked to some like bullying. He hurled curses at the targets of his investigations, and sometimes at colleagues perceived as too slow or too questioning of his tactics.
During an argument at a conference, he nearly came to blows with the California attorney general, according to a magazine article. And Wall Street rank left him largely unimpressed.
John C. Whitehead, the former chairman of Goldman Sachs, wrote in The Wall Street Journal of taking a phone call from Mr. Spitzer. The attorney general, Mr. Whitehead said, had launched into a tirade, threatening him with “war” over his public criticism of a case.
“I was astounded,” Mr. Whitehead wrote. “No one had ever talked to me like that before. It was a little scary.”
Few on Wall Street expressed much sorrow at Mr. Spitzer’s predicament on Monday. In particular, friends of Richard A. Grasso, the former chairman of the New York Stock Exchange and a favorite Spitzer piñata, recalled that Spitzer aides had circulated allegations, never substantiated, that Mr. Grasso had had an improper relationship with his secretary.
But in his own view, Mr. Spitzer was a warrior in wartime. He had come to symbolize public revulsion with Wall Street’s excesses, and most voters seemed willing to extend him the benefit of the doubt.
He also initiated popular attacks on subprime mortgage brokers and gun manufacturers, and issued a report concluding that the New York City police were twice as likely to stop blacks and Latinos as whites on suspicion of carrying weapons — a finding that enraged Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.
And Mr. Spitzer was a careful custodian of his own image, cultivating editorial boards and magazine editors. He might be intense and sometimes profane, but he sold these traits as the necessary downside of his crusading style. So he became the “new Untouchable” or, in Time magazine, the “tireless crusader.”
So great was his public acclaim that his path to the governor’s mansion already seemed clear when he launched his campaign in Buffalo to the sounds of Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.” The symbolism was clear and his language was characteristically unyielding.
He promised a cleaning of the governmental stables, vowing to sweep out “unqualified cronies,” stamp out “pay-to-play politics” and impose leadership on a leaderless statehouse.
His assurance never faded, even as he walked up the steps of the Capitol to be inaugurated on a frigid January morning in 2007.
“Like Rip Van Winkle,” he told his audience, “New York has slept through much of the past decade while the rest of the world has passed us by.”
Alas for Mr. Spitzer, his shiv-in-the-kidney style, which served him so well in facing down skittish bankers and mutual fund executives, met its match in Albany. He relied — too often, said some — on his tough-talking crew from the attorney general’s office, and tended to speak loudly when he might better have listened.
“He’s got such a fabulous mind,” said a strategist who had worked closely with the governor on past campaigns and spoke on the condition of anonymity. “But he’s not a listener. His dramatic flaw is that he only wants to talk about his ideas.”
Time and again, Mr. Spitzer began as the hunter and finished as the hunted. He would curse at legislators, who would in turn leak damaging word to reporters or hold up crucial legislation.
The Republican leader of the State Senate, Joseph L. Bruno, a wily, white-haired 78-year-old former Army boxer, tossed jab after jab at the 48-year-old governor. Mr. Spitzer, opined Mr. Bruno, is a “spoiled brat” prone to tantrums. And when it was revealed that just weeks into Mr. Spitzer’s term, the governor’s staff had used the state police to try to prove that Mr. Bruno misused a state helicopter for political trips, the Senate leader played the near-perfect victim.
“Straight talk,” Mr. Spitzer told a reporter last fall, “is perhaps something that comes too naturally to me.”
Of course, the governor offered that epiphany not long after he had picked a fight with yet another politician, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who had opposed the governor’s plan to offer driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants. With little prompting, the governor had thrown down denunciations striking for their righteous dudgeon.
The mayor, he said, “is wrong at every level — dead wrong, factually wrong, legally wrong, morally wrong, ethically wrong.”