Eliot Spitzer’s Interview at the 92Y: The Full Report


Eliot Spitzer’s talk with CBS News analyst Jeff Greenfield was last night at the 92nd Street Y, and it started with Greenfield noting that Spitzer only agreed to talk “without conditions.” Needless to say, this had serious potential for all parties involved, especially the audience. And Spitzer and Greenfield delivered on it.

One quick note: The most comprehensive account of the talk out right now is the Daily News, but the one that appeared on their blog*. The other one, that’s running in print, is by NYDN reporter Erin Einhorn, and it was as predictable as it was brazenly sensational. The reporter — who was obnoxious* even before she filed her bush-league account of the night — offered up a Silda Spitzer sighting, a narrative invoking quotes from a barely sourced pitchfork-raising mob of one and a woman whose opinion of Spitzer had changed over the course of the night, and the words “the hooker-happy former governor” in the second sentence — and, of course, “Disgraced ex-Gov. Eliot Spitzer” as the first five words in the headline. Even the Post didn’t go that far.

Here’s what was actually discussed:

On Endorsing Andrew Cuomo — Spitzer was lukewarm, noting that he wasn’t going to give an endorsement to anyone without first hearing them answer for their agenda, which is “what politics is all about”: finding someone whose position you agree with, and voting for it. And he argued that Cuomo had yet to make his clear.

On Wall Street and the Goldman SEC Hearings — Greenfield asked if Spitzer had been watching the hearings, and he noted he was, what he “could stomach.” He had some choice quotes about the matter, and this was arguably the best part of the discussion. “The fundamental error was embracing an ideology of libertarianism that began with Regan,” he started out. He was relentless:

  • Synthetic CDOs should not exist.”
  • On Goldman Sachs and companies like theirs, Spitzer maintained: “These guys know how to run a casino, not an economy.”
  • Spitzer was asked a theoretical on whether or not had he stayed Attorney General, could he have stopped the banking crisis and corruption? “No,” he said. “The New York Fed could’ve stopped it, the National Fed could’ve stopped it.” He also targeted the Federal Reserve as one of the most harmfully opaque organizations in the country.
  • Also, on his time as Attorney General: “We’d been pursuing sub-prime debt since 1999… These multiple factors metastasized.”
  • On seeing warning signs on AIG: “We tried.”
  • On Madoff: “I didn’t even know his name, actually, until the news broke. It was the simplist thing in the world. All we would’ve needed to bust him would’ve been one tip. We investigated all tips thoroughly. It would’ve been so simple.”

On David Paterson — When asked why he chose David Paterson to be his lieutenant governor, he answered that he needed someone to deal with former State Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, and Paterson had established those relationships, and that was why. “That didn’t work,” he observed. He also took note of Ed Koch lining up campaigns to unseat everyone in Albany as a great thing. When Greenfield asked if that was something he’d do, Spitzer laughed it off, noting something to the effect of not quite being there yet, and going where he was needed, something he’d repeat throughout the night. The only question of the evening he dodged, notably, was about Gov. Paterson. But he said the governor was “hanging tough” with regard to pushing through the mess that is Albany to get work done, and that he hoped he’d continue to do so.

On Mayor Bloomberg — He noted that while Bloomberg is “a friend” of his, he views the financial crisis through the viewpoint of someone who sees financial companies from the perspective of the mayor, who sees the benefits for his city from (among other things) the tax revenue they provide: “That is a narrow prism with which to deal with. I think he is fundamentally in error.

On Why He’s Speaking — The former governor maintained the point that he will go where he’s “needed,” as he’s needed — whether that’s writing, teaching, or working in politics again, something he hasn’t ruled out.

On Why He Resigned — Greenfield noted that while Bill Clinton was able to maintain his presidency amid the biggest sexual scandal the United States’ Presidency had ever seen, Spitzer couldn’t. He asked him why. Spitzer noted two reasons: the first, that he had an obligation to his family that he couldn’t fulfill while fighting for his office under the scandal. And the second, relating to the first, was the lack of support he had in Albany at the time, when he was told by Democratic leadership that he “had no friends.” He clarified to note that he did “have a few,” but the fight for office just wasn’t going to happen under those circumstances.

On Reading ‘The’ Book — Greenfield asked Spitzer if he had read Peter Elkind’s book The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, which contained some pretty salacious revelations about Spitzer’s administation. Spitzer said that while he hadn’t read it, he did “turn the pages.”

On Spitzer’s Temper — Among the other revelations in Peter Elkind’s book, Spitzer’s temper and tendency to scream at his staff is well-noted. Spitzer said that it was something he and his staff openly joked about, but that if he could take back some of the things he said and the manner in which he said them, he would. He followed that by noting that he does not regret the spirit and intent in having done so, though — to motivate change — and wished that it was more present in Albany.

On the Supreme Court Opening — Yielded by a question from the audience, Spitzer had high marks for current U.S. Soliciter General, Elena Kagan, the first woman to ever hold that office. Spitzer noted that he was biased over Kagan because she was a “classmate of [his] since [his] freshman year of college.” He also praised the Congressional Oversight Panel’s current Chair, Elizabeth Warren, a candidate whose name has been mentioned as a potential nominee; when mentioned, her name got a hearty round of applause from the crowd.

On Recommended Reading — Spitzer suggested two books on the financial crisis and Wall Street bailouts: The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe and A Short History of Financial Euphoria by John Kenneth Galbraith. He also praised Moneyball author Michael Lewis’s The Big Short as perfect.

On The Chutzpah He Must Have — Spitzer noted that there are people who will decry him as someone to listen to because of the scandal, and those who would respond to his takedowns of Wall Street’s corruption with, “The chutzpah he must have!” His response: “They’re right.” He noted that he hopes they respond to him well, and that in the end, “It’s their choice. I’ll respect them for it.”

Final Talking Points: CBS News’ Jeff Greenfield masterfully led a smart, riveting discussion that was never dumbed down, never boring, and never not interesting. He helped keep it sharp, concise, and at times, pretty funny. He wasn’t an overreaching or preening moderator, but he wasn’t lobbing the former governor any softballs, either.

Spitzer was talking like someone who wasn’t running for office, and given the way he took both names in state and federal politics to task, someone who wouldn’t be running for office in the foreseeable future. Essentially, like a guy with little to lose, which was in a more frank manner than he’d ever been seen speaking before since the scandals erupted. Given two factors, it was likely fairly refreshing for anybody who’s spent any amount of time considering the current state of Albany politics. The first was after Greenfield coyly pointed out the “quality of leadership” in New York Politics to loud laughs, Spitzer explained that there were still a few “good guys” in Albany, which was responded to by a few loud shouts of “WHO?” from the audience. Second, the reception the former governor received when the talk ended was, at the very least, better than he got walking on stage — loud and spirited, it was the kind reserved for occasions when an audience is left wanting more.

*Note: Turns out (1) Einhorn contributed to the NYDN blog post and (2) the woman she was interviewing was hearing impaired. Who knew? Better question: Who’s the obnoxious asshole now? — FK.