Over the past 14 years, I’ve never had the opportunity to interview a major political figure as often as I have Eliot Spitzer during his three runs for attorney general, his two terms in that office and his slam-dunk campaign for governor.
And yet I never felt like I knew much about him at all.
Each time I sat down with Spitzer, who was always personable and generous with his time, I was amazed at his ability to fully answer a question while telling as little as possible. He didn’t evade a question as much as he offered the blandest, least newsworthy answer.
Other elected officials, like Rudy Giuliani or Chuck Schumer, could aptly be described as political personalities who like to talk about themselves and their lives as much as their jobs. With Spitzer it was almost always about policy and vision. Those interviews made for tough headlines and lead paragraphs because there was almost no way to sum him up.
Once, toward the end of his second term as attorney general, I got him to open up a bit about his family life, and he recounted the previous evening’s Chanukah menorah lighting with his daughters, and a discussion about why the shamash candle always seemed to burn out faster.
But the story seemed so made-for-prime-time you almost wondered if it came from a speechwriter.
In short, he was a dry sound bite. It was hard to believe this quiet, reserved man who reminded me of actor/director Ron Howard, was the same guy who was gaining the “Sheriff of Wall Street” reputation, racking up CEO arrests or resignations through tactics many found overaggressive.
In person, he seemed to have a perennial wall around himself and never seemed fully at ease, even when he took off his jacket, stretched out his legs and smiled.
At the dawn of his gubernatorial quest, when rival Democrat Tom Suozzi was launching daily pre-emptive strikes against the highly popular crusading attorney general, I tried to get Spitzer to respond. “I’m going to run this race today and tomorrow just as I did last week, all the way through, based on my record and what I intend to do for this state,” he said as his car sped him from one yeshiva dinner to another.
During the course of that ride on a cold Sunday night almost exactly two years ago, I kept trying, but got almost the same answer each time. He was doing his best to show that Suozzi’s remarks didn’t affect him.
Later in that campaign, in a conference call with The Jewish Week, we asked Spitzer, who had pushed for tougher bias crime laws and against religious discrimination, if he had ever faced anti-Semitism himself, hoping for a humanizing anecdote. He gave only a vague answer about some offhanded remarks he’d heard in college from ignorant people.
Probably the best-ever profile of Spitzer appeared during that campaign in Vanity Fair, revealing that as a young Harvard Law grad the future politician had taken some time off to travel the country and see how the other half lives, doing hard labor with migrant farm workers and the like. It was perhaps the most revealing tidbit about him yet, suggesting he planned a political career early on. And still it had the feel of coming from his campaign. Interviews with family members and former schoolmates in that article produced not much that was memorable.
Could a figure this powerful and ascendant really be that boring, I wondered. This week, came the answer. Spitzer has had his share of past controversy in the form of a questionable campaign loan from his father in the ‘90s and the explosive scandal last year that came out of his aides’ efforts to put a political hit on state Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno.
But the idea of a sex scandal, particularly one involving illegality, was
the last thing in the world anyone expected from Eliot Spitzer. Bill Clinton
offered enough hints of his nature before he was elected that "Lewinskygate"
wasn¹t a complete surprise.
Spitzer¹s repertoire didn¹t seem to extend beyond a few dirty tricks and
threats of "steamrolling" his enemies in relentless pursuit of his reform
And so I was relieved on Monday as a reporter to know I wasn¹t the only one who couldn¹t read Eliot Spitzer, no matter how much opportunity. His veneer was just too thick. It stands to reason no one knew about the prostitutes.
But it was also shocking across the state that the man who seemed to have his life and career so well put together had it in him to act so recklessly.
"This was hubris, a feeling of invulnerability, like he¹s the smartest person in the room, knowing the game and feeling he was going to beat it", says Baruch College political science professor Doug Muzzio. "That inflated sense of self can do you in".
When the Joe Bruno scandal erupted last summer I believed the governor would benefit from it in the end. The hubris built from his successful attorney general tenure and easy election as governor needed a reality check, and with that scandal taking place early in his tenure, he still had three years to get back on track.
Now, Spitzer¹s listing ship has hit an even bigger iceberg. The damage is irreparable. And Eliot Spitzer leaves Albany as the governor we never really knew at all.