The Magazine

Troopergate, New York-Style

Eliot Spitzer's character problem.

Aug 20, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 46 • By FRED SIEGEL and MICHAEL GOODWIN
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Even by the scandal-pocked history of New York politics, Eliot Spitzer's fall from grace is extraordinary. A mere seven months into his term after a landslide victory, the Empire State's brash new governor is openly ridiculed as a liar and worse. An astonishing 80 percent of respondents tell pollsters they want the governor to testify under oath to prove his claim that he had nothing to do with "troopergate," a dirty-tricks plot to smear Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, a Republican rival.

His fellow Democratic pols are largely abandoning him. After two investigations found that his top aides used the state police for a political hit job, and with four more probes gearing up, one of which could bring indictments, Spitzer is suddenly a lonely man. As one prominent supporter put it, "nobody believes him when he says he didn't know." Left unsaid was the glee that many feel at Spitzer's comeuppance.

This is not the turn the script was supposed to take. The boy wonder, elected state attorney general at the tender age of 39, rocketed to fame as the Sheriff of Wall Street. Following the tech bust on Wall Street, Spitzer emerged as the defender of the little guys who had been bilked by the insiders. He exposed the double dealing investment advice handed out to small customers by Merrill Lynch, the after-market-hours trade by Canary Capital, and kickback schemes by insurance giant Marsh & McLennan. That he sometimes was more zealous than fair was, to his supporters, beside the point. Following the massive Enron, WorldCom, and Global Crossing scandals, and as the Bush administration and the SEC slept, Spitzer stepped into the vacuum. The field was open for an ambitious young gunslinger with a taste for headlines and scalps--an opening tailor-made for Spitzer.

The political payoff was fast and huge. For Democrats demoralized by Al Gore's defeat and dismayed by the victories of Republicans Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg in New York City and Governor George Pataki in Albany, Spitzer was a godsend. His image as a tough prosecutor fighting the battles of what he called "the investor class," supposedly an emerging GOP constituency, propelled him to stardom.

He was variously described by the national press as the second coming of Theodore Roosevelt, Batman in a three-piece suit, and the new King Arthur. A New York Times Magazine story in 2005 asked, "Is a prosecutor's zeal what the Democrats need?" The angry avenger suddenly seemed the party's savior. Long before the 2006 gubernatorial election, he was the presumed winner, especially after Pataki decided not to seek a fourth term. Already there was talk that Spitzer had his eye on bigger fish--becoming the first Jewish president of the United States. The way he was going, it certainly seemed possible.

Ah, but there is a catch. His admirable argument about how even the big guys have to play by the rules didn't apply to his own conduct. Eliot Spitzer, it turns out, is a deeply flawed savior. From the very beginning of his political career, there was evidence of a character problem, one marked by an uneasy relationship with the truth. He misled the public, the press, and state election officials about how he was financing both his failed 1994 race for attorney general and his successful one in 1998. Confronted by Michael Goodwin about his repeated lies on the subject just before election day in 1998, Spitzer didn't deny it. "I had to," he said of his lies, as though it was the most natural thing to do, and therefore acceptable. His reason, he said, was that his father, who had funded his campaigns to the tune of some $7 million, wanted to keep his role private.

But even that wasn't the whole truth. As a neophyte with no political base, Spitzer would not have been able to raise the money for his first campaign legitimately, so the candidate himself had reason to keep the source secret. These were the days before Bloomberg broke the taboo on the ultra-rich running for office, so Spitzer was careful not to advertise that he was the scion to a real estate empire said to be worth $500 million.

Indeed, Spitzer has always been uncomfortable about his background, often suggesting he was a tough guy by saying "I'm from the Bronx" even though he grew up in a mansion in the exclusive Riverdale section. He never set foot in a public school, going through a series of prestigious private ones: Horace Mann School, Princeton, Harvard Law.