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Eliot Spitzer Wants Back in Politics

The New York Times is reporting, in its lead article this morning, that former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, who was forced to resign after his liaison with a high-priced call girl became public knowledge, is going to run for city comptroller in this year’s New York City elections. Like Anthony Weiner, who is running for mayor after being forced to resign from Congress because of a “sexting” scandal, he is asking the public to forgive him.

Personally, I’ve never thought that one’s private sexual peccadilloes, even if they become public, should automatically disbar someone from public office. After all, both Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy were capable presidents while being chronic philanderers. Finding that the high and the mighty have feet of clay is irresistible journalistic catnip, but it’s a poor way to choose leaders. After all, as Catholics say, we are all miserable sinners.

But let’s take a look at Spitzer’s performance as a public servant, specifically his career as New York attorney general. In that office he was far more interested in his own political advancement than in anything else, choosing his cases with an eye to generating publicity as a crusader against Wall Street peculation. And his tactics in these cases were often abhorrent: As Ben Smith writes:

Spitzer was, as New York State Attorney General, a terrifying and fascinating figure. He had learned from his legendary former boss Robert Morgenthau that under-resourced public prosecutors can’t beat deep-pocketed law firms on a level playing field, and that where banks and wealthy defendants may have time and money on their side, prosecutors can use the press to erase at least the first advantage. He leaked shamelessly, and even as he denied leaking, playing extremely high-stakes games with the stock prices of major corporations. He understood the power of fear and the innate conservatism of corporate executives, and persuaded much of New York City’s financial elite that he was actually out of his mind — an incredibly valuable perception in high-stakes negotiations.

Bullying was standard operating procedure for Spitzer as attorney general. When the former head of Goldman Sachs, John Whitehead, criticized his prosecution of a financial executive, Spitzer called him and said, “Mr. Whitehead, it’s now a war between us and you’ve fired the first shot. I will be coming after you. You will pay the price. This is only the beginning and you will pay dearly for what you have done. You will wish you had never written that letter.” His language was often far worse with other victims of his wrath.

Indictment for an individual is, certainly, bad news. But for a corporation it can be a death sentence, especially on Wall Street where trust is everything. Credit dries up, deals disappear, the stock price collapses. So when Spitzer went after Hank Greenberg, the long-time head of A.I.G., the insurance giant, the company felt that it had no choice but to have Mr. Greenberg—who had built the small company into one of the world’s largest insurance companies—resign. Greenberg was replaced by a mediocrity and in 2008, the company—which was “too big to fail”—had to be bailed out by the federal government. We’ll never know if Greenberg could have prevented that calamity, but he was never indicted criminally and most of the civil charges have been dismissed.

There’s no reason he wouldn’t bring the same tactics to the office of city comptroller. New York City is quite uncivil enough as it is without the likes of Eliot Spitzer’s bullying, threatening, and self-aggrandizing.



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