Eliot Spitzer: Willie Stark or Mr. Smith Goes to Albany?



By Harry Bruinius

“Bust ’em and they’ll stay busted,” said Governor Willie Stark in Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “All the Kings Men.” “But buy ‘em and you can’t tell how long they’ll stay bought.”

It’s been seven months into the administration of Governor Eliot Spitzer, the fiercely gawky, blue-eyed pol from the Bronx who swept into power this year with a mandate as sweeping as the Empire State as ever seen.

But in the past week, in a quintessentially American saga of power, hubris, and vaunting ambition, the erstwhile “sheriff of Wall Street,” the populist scourge who seemed to single-handedly denude the unctuous titans of finance through the humble office of a states attorney, has squandered that mandate with the same kind of power-wielding chutzpah he once made headlines bringing low.

And while Spitzer’s media-savvy and hard-nose deal-making forced his Wall Street antagonists to forgo a fight and settle, he had still been able to create an image more Mr. Smith goes to Albany than the bust-‘em Willie Stark—he was the tough and savvy idealist who could outwit the smartest guys in the room by exposing their sneaky accounting and unscrupulous leveraging of power.

But now the governor faces the same kind of humiliating scrutiny. The State Ethics Commission and the Senate are leafing through the attorney general’s report, promising to keep for weeks Spitzer’s clumsy attempt to bust Senate Leader Joseph Bruno. Not only did the governor’s office cross an ethical line by using the State Police to dig up dirt on its most powerful political opponent, the report stated, it also concocted a phony reason for doing so.

In the cynical game of politics, a public leader’s rhetoric and actions seldom closely match. But Governor Spitzer had made ethics his thing.

His crusades against Wall Street hardly seemed sanctimonious in an era of Enron and ImClone, and his settlements seemed judicious and fair, with an eye toward changing a ethically laissez faire culture rather than meting out punitive justice. His headlines were not just hype, and his sweeping victory last year really seem to promise, as he proclaimed, that “day one, everything changes.”

“Some public officials may not want to face stricter ethics rules and more competitive elections, but all citizens will win when we finally get a government that puts the people’s interests, openness and integrity first,” he also said at his inauguration. “Every policy, every action every decision we make in this administration will further two overarching objectives: we must transform our government so that it is as ethical and wise as all of New York, and we must rebuild our economy so that it is ready to compete on the global stage in the next century.”

Given his political capital, and given his adversarial instincts as an attorney general (his only elected office before becoming governor), perhaps it was inevitable that he would overreach and be seduced by power. Instead of becoming ethical and wise, he hoped to denude; instead of openness and integrity, it appears, he resorted to the most clichéd of dirty tricks.

But beyond the hypocrisy, the humiliation, and of course the gleeful schadenfreude echoing through Wall Street last week, Governor Spitzer has sparked life into the moribund New York Republican Party. Elected to none of the state’s four major posts, including lieutenant governor, comptroller, and attorney general, their Senate Leader Bruno already being investigated by the feds, the GOP appeared relegated to being a procedural pain-in-the-ass rather than setting any of the agenda. Indeed, Spitzer’s state campaign-finance overhaul may now become engulfed in endless questions about what he knew of Troopergate and when he knew it.

Many have mentioned the jug-eared New York governor as a future presidential candidate, and, indeed, politicians often have many lives, even after scandals much more grave than this. But this is how politics has always been, from day one.