The Picture Of Emperor Eliot

Author:
Publish date:
Updated on

"I do not believe that politics in the long run is about individuals. It is about ideas, the public good and doing what is best for the State of New York."
Eliot Spitzer, the gangly governor of the Empire State whom federal wire-taps allegedly caught arranging a tryst with a prostitute on the eve of Valentine's Day, took the opportunity afforded him today by the sudden attention of the national media to deliver that short lecture on civics. Other men--even that subspecies known as politicians--might have been humbled by the circumstances, and perhaps even resigned from public office. But Spitzer is not like other men, he reminded us today.
There's a certain poetic quality to this final act of Spitzer's. His extraordinary popularity with members of the press (now presumably extinguished) was rooted in his willingness to leak, sotto voce, allegations of misconduct in the personal lives of the subjects of his investigations. The press loved the juicy headlines. His motivation was apparently to embarrass and intimidate the subjects of his investigations so that they would be forced to comply.
We admit to enjoying the spectacle of watching a man so given to the high moralistic tone brought low by such a misdeed. As one commenter on the New York Times wrote, he's gone from Eliot Ness to Eliot Mess. But this is not just schadenfreude. There's a matter of serious public concern beneath the cheers and smirks of those who won't be sorry to see Spitzer fall from the bully pulpit. What the federal wiretap has uncovered is not just a sex scandal but a dark crack running through the character of New York's governor. It's as if we were Basil Hallward looking for the first time at the picture of Dorian Gray.
That a man so versed in the blackmail style of prosecution would so readily open himself up to that dark art is, at the very least, extraordinary. One would think that a man who deployed his aides to whisper about a corporate executive allegedly "banging" his assistant, would be wise enough to the ways of the world to avoid putting himself in a position where he could be blackmailed. That he lacked such wisdom--or ignored it--shows a reckless disregard for the responsibilities of the high office to which the people of New York elected him.
That reckless disregard is coupled in Spitzer's character with a steadfast self-regard. Even in his brief apology, he focused mostly on how he had violated his own standards of conduct rather than those of the public's mores and statutes. It is as if, in the kingdom of Spitzer, there is no crime worse than violating the standards of Spitzer.
Where did this sense of self-regard come from? Spitzer is the scion of a family made wealthy by real estate investments. He went to Horace Mann High School, graduated from Princeton and Harvard Law School. Like Barack Obama, he was an editor of the Harvard Law Review. Many others have emerged from similarly privileged backgrounds without experiencing the ego inflation that fueled Spitzer's reckless self-regard. Even now, the origins of this deformation of characters remain illegible to the public.
If Spitzer were open to the standards set by those residing beyond the bounds of his own mind, he might take a page from one of the earliest targets of his crusade against Wall Street. In 2002, Spitzer went after Merrill Lynch's investment banking and research practices. After he described Merrill's conduct as "a shocking betrayal of trust by one of Wall Street's most trusted names," Merrill Lynch stock sank, and the company lost $5 billion in market value in a few days. Reading the writing on the wall, Merrill recognized that the good of its shareholders lay in a quick settlement rather than a protracted defense.
The writing is all over the wall, Mr. Governor. If you really want to do what is best for New York State, it might be time to start reading it.

Related