The Magazine

I, Eliot

From the March 7, 2005 issue: Will New York's attorney general conquer the "investor class"?

Mar 7, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 23 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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A hard metaphor to top, but others have tried. Last summer an article in Legal Affairs compared Spitzer to King Arthur. Last December an illustration on the front page of the New York Times's Sunday business section portrayed Spitzer as Superman. Last October the Atlantic Monthly's Sridhar Pappu wrote that "to hear Spitzer speak about his job, about what it has become, about what he's made it, is like sitting down with Bruce Wayne, Batman's alter ego, and asking him why he dresses like a bat and lurks in the corners of Gotham each night."

The encomiums go on. And on. To the producers of 60 Minutes, Spitzer is a John Wayne for the new century, the "sheriff of Wall Street." To the editor in chief of the New Republic, Spitzer is Theodore Roosevelt incarnate--"not the T.R. of bluster, but the T.R. of remedy and of vision." To Slate, Spitzer "may be America's most powerful politician outside Washington."

All this is typical of his press clippings. But in some articles, Spitzer is celebrated for being something he's not--something he never was, in fact. This happened first in December 2002, and again in December 2003, when the Times of London, then the San Francisco Chronicle, named Spitzer . . . "businessperson of the year." For a lifetime lawyer who's spent most of his career in government, for someone whose ambitions lie in the realm of state and (his supporters hope) national politics, that's high praise indeed. Because, let's be honest, Eliot Spitzer is not, never was, probably never will be a businessman.

ON JUNE 10, 1959, Eliot Spitzer was born in New York City. He had a happy childhood. His father, Bernard, owned apartment buildings throughout Manhattan, providing his family with an income substantial enough to afford a home in Riverdale, a gilded neighborhood in the Bronx. Money was everywhere in Spitzer's youth. Money made his education possible: Horace Mann prep academy, Princeton undergrad, Harvard Law. When school was out, money--or, rather, other people's lack of it--influenced his choice of summer activities. According to Time, he spent one summer "as a migrant laborer in upstate New York, side by side with Mexicans picking tomatoes." ("I wanted to experience harder work," Spitzer told Time, "to see the world from a different perspective.") Eventually money would support his political ambitions: His first campaigns were largely self-financed. And money informed his relationship with his dad. A famous story in the Spitzer household tells how Eliot and Bernard spent an evening in a ruthless, knockout grudge-match; the joke is that the two were playing Monopoly. Bernard won.

One day in January, I went to see Jim Cramer, the former hedge-fund manager turned TV personality. Cramer is a busy man. He hosts a radio show, has been cohosting Kudlow & Cramer five days a week on the financial cable network CNBC (where he's about to launch a new show, Mad Money), writes a column on money for New York magazine, and writes several times a day for, the financial website he founded. Cramer is one of Eliot Spitzer's best friends. Spitzer is a former client; both Eliot and Bernard Spitzer were long-time investors in Cramer's hedge fund. But the relationship extends back long before Cramer entered finance.

The way Cramer tells it, the two met in the fall of 1981, when they were first-year law students at Harvard. "Within minutes," Cramer says, Spitzer mentioned that he had been student government president at Princeton. Whereupon Cramer began to laugh at him.

"I thought it was hysterically funny," said Cramer, who had spent the previous four years as a reporter at a small newspaper, after graduating from Harvard. During his time at Harvard, he continued, student government was nothing less than a big, fat joke. Spitzer asked him why he was laughing.

"'Because it's a joke,' I said," Cramer went on. "But that's Eliot. The cynical approach, which so many of us are steeped in, doesn't work with him. He's a factual guy. You can say what a joke student government is; he will go toe-to-toe with you and say empirically it wasn't a joke, so therefore are you willing to admit that you're being cynical and not skeptical?"

The tension between Cramer and Spitzer soon faded. "We're friends with each other all through law school," Cramer told me. "When I get out of Harvard," he said, "I owe about $40,000 in credit cards and tuition, and I say, 'f--it, I can't live in New York'--I'm going to have to live on my sister's floor." Spitzer was moving into one of his father's Manhattan apartment buildings. "He says, 'My dad owns an apartment building on 72nd street, and he can give you a studio at a reasonable, market rate that is not prohibitive." Cramer moved next door to Spitzer. "And so I saw him at home. I'd see him every day." He paused. "I've always loved him."