The Magazine

Character Is Destiny

Client 9 crashes and burns.

Mar 24, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 27 • By FRED SIEGEL and MICHAEL GOODWIN
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A popular media narrative last week was that the sordid revelations that brought down New York governor Eliot Spitzer were a total shock to New Yorkers because he was universally regarded as a paragon of probity. The prostitution scandal was the fall of Mr. Clean, as CNN and Reuters put it. We were repeatedly reminded that Time had once dubbed him "Crusader of the Year." The juxtaposition of the Spitzer who made morals and ethics the hallmark of his career with the hooker-loving married man caught with his pants down was presented as a delicious morality tale.

While the details of his demise truly were dramatic, there is a flaw in the fallen crusader narrative. By the time Spitzer fell, it was only the liberal media that still thought of him as Mr. Clean. They alone still saw a political rock star and a savior of the Democratic party. (The New York Times and the New Republic had talked of "Spitzerism" as the path to the party's future.) In their minds, his image as the "Sheriff of Wall Street" was etched in stone.

Most New Yorkers, though, had long had their fill of Eliot Spitzer. Polls over the last six months had consistently shown that even a majority of Democrats wanted someone else as governor. In the last poll taken before the sex scandal hit, only a quarter of the respondents said they would vote for Spitzer again. With three years to go in his term, the hunt was already on for a replacement. New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg was the most popular pick, walloping Spitzer in polls.

It was a remarkable turnaround for someone elected in a landslide after a 2006 campaign in which he was never seriously challenged. His Obama-like campaign slogan was "Day One, Everything Changes." With the sizing-up skill of a Times Square bunko artist, he had a knack for telling people what they wanted to hear about a dysfunctional state capital. Five months before the election, he said that just as "Only Nixon could go to China," only a tough-minded Democrat like himself could reform Albany, vowing, "We will turn that world upside down. We are absolutely going to sweep it out."

He went up against a competent opponent in the primary, Nassau County executive Tom Suozzi, but won with 81 percent of the vote. Ditto for the general election, where Spitzer gained nearly 70 percent against former Republican assemblyman John Faso. When he took office in January 2007, Spitzer looked to be on his way to the White House.

Despite what some of his apologists maintain, the relentless unraveling of his administration was not driven by inexperience or political mistakes or even entrenched opponents. The cause of Spitzer's troubles was always the same: his character flaws. Character is destiny, and he couldn't get out of his own way. His volcanic outbursts, inept management, and penchant for incessant dishonesty and hypocrisy rendered him unfit in a political blink of the eye. He also grew increasingly risky in his public behavior--consulting no one, for instance, when he pushed for driver's licenses for illegal immigrants despite overwhelming public opposition and despite the embarassment this brought to Hillary Clinton who he had endorsed for the Democratic nomination. Now we know, he was reckless in private as well.

Like Alexei in Dostoyevsky's Gambler, Spitzer couldn't but act in a "reckless and unseemly way." Emboldened by his successes and oblivious to his defeats, he pushed his luck and raised the stakes. Talking about his long association with hookers, some said he was so riven with inner conflicts he wanted to get caught. More likely, he believed he was too smart to get caught. Either way, he prospered so long as the only assessment that mattered was that of allies in the press and in politics. But once he became governor and entered a more level playing field where opponents had real power to strike back, he was in over his head.

Not everyone caught on immediately, of course, and for good reason. Eliot Spitzer, it turns out, was a world-class con man and had the ability to fool many people for some of the time. Like a shooting star, he was brilliant while he lasted. While his eight years as attorney general looked to be a stepping stone to greater and greater glory, it was, instead, all downhill from there. His approval ratings started falling in the first weeks of his becoming governor and never recovered.

He was so obviously off course that it was possible to compare him to New Jersey governor Jim ("I am a gay American") McGreevey, who had been forced to resign in his third year in office. Spitzer, Michael Goodwin noted in October 2007, "is moving downhill faster and earlier than McGreevey did. Unless he gets his act together, he could meet the same end and have the same legacy."