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Road to Ruin

Client Number Nine had other problems, too

Jun 21, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 38 • By FRED SIEGEL
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Rough Justice

Road to Ruin

Former Governor Eliot Spitzer

Credit: Getty Images

The Rise and Fall
of Eliot Spitzer
by Peter Elkind
Portfolio, 320 pp., $26.95

It all seems so familiar: New York, once the Empire State, beset by a dysfunctional government and a dying upstate economy; a wildly popular, crusading attorney general seemingly on his way to a landslide gubernatorial victory by promising to revive the state’s flagging fortunes. Four years ago, Eliot Spitzer was the man riding in on the AG’s white horse; this year it’s Andrew Cuomo.

Cuomo has no doubt carefully read Peter Elkind’s Rough Justice, if only to see how his own role in the former governor’s political demise is depicted. The “rough justice” in the title refers to the methods used by Spitzer as attorney general when he went after Wall Street executives, and also by Cuomo when, as Spitzer’s successor, he went after Governor Spitzer’s use of state troopers to subvert a rival. The method: Go after a guilty bigwig who has a lot to lose, try him in the press, squeeze him, and then force to him to quickly acknowledge his wrongdoing. The technique can be brutally effective. There’s no need for subtleties or convictions, just a big PR victory. Cuomo used the same methods to discomfit Governor Spitzer that Attorney General Spitzer had used to make himself governor.

Elkind’s book is primarily the story of Spitzer’s descent into the world of “high class” call girls. But there are two, more substantial but less developed, stories folded into the book’s melodramatic format. The first is the story of why New York’s government works best for the people employed by government. The second involves the danger of electing candidates who are merely intelligent while lacking character, experience, and integrity.  

There are a number of strands in Elkind’s melodrama, none of which is plausible or well developed. In one, Spitzer is done in by his evil twin, Irwin. “Irwin” was the name staffers gave to Spitzer when he flew into one of his rages. But this theory of a split personality is so thin as to be a mere throw-in. The second, only hinted at, is that Spitzer was done in by sinister Wall Street bad guys such as Hank Greenberg, the man he had deposed as head of AIG, and Ken Langone of Home Depot, who had been sued by Spitzer for his role on the New York Stock Exchange’s compensation committee. Charges were eventually dropped against both men. But this is a barely developed argument by inferential suggestion. The third, and least plausible, theme is that Spitzer was done in by nefarious pols such as his arch-Albany enemy Joe Bruno, the dapper and corrupt Republican president of the state senate. This is the strand that should most interest Cuomo since it speaks directly to the problems he’ll face should he be elected.    

After 12 years of the increasingly lethargic and ethically challenged administration of Republican governor George Pataki, who entered the statehouse in 1995 a man of modest means and left a millionaire in 2006, New York, burdened by a famously dysfunctional legislature, was ready for a new departure. Disgust with Albany, which had been hit by a series of legislative scandals, had reached new levels. The number of lobbyists had doubled during the Pataki years, property taxes were 70 percent above the national average, and the business climate was rated the worst, or next to worst, in the nation. Upstate New York, and particularly western New York, was dying. Spitzer shocked downstate when, campaigning for governor in 2006, he described part of New York as “Appalachian” in its poverty, but he wasn’t far off the mark. Spitzer, who was already being mentioned as a future president, ran on two Obama-like slogans: “total change” and “on day one everything changes.” 

In his January 2007 inaugural speech, Spitzer decried, “The burdensome property taxes and the health care we can’t afford .  .  . the jobs that have disappeared from our upstate cities and the schools that keep failing our children. .  .  . Like Rip Van Winkle,” he went on, “New York has slept through much of the past decade.” Spitzer proposed a billion-dollar development fund for upstate New York, more support for the State University of New York, which he saw as a potential economic engine, lower property taxes, and more school aid. But to pay for all that he had to slow the growth of health care spending, which was crowding out every other item in the budget. New York was spending more on Medicaid than Florida and Texas combined, and getting only mediocre care in return. 

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