Spitzer's Morality Tale

Eliot Spitzer's remarkable career illustrates two recurring themes in American political life. The first is that those who rise fastest have the furthest to fall. ...
by | March 10, 2008

Eliot Spitzer's remarkable career illustrates two recurring themes in American political life. The first is that those who rise fastest have the furthest to fall. The other is that those who present themselves as holy turn out to be especially vulnerable if and when it turns out they have crossed ethical boundaries themselves.

Spitzer had been enjoying a golden run. He became a national star as New York's attorney general by forcing Wall Street financial houses into embarrassing and costly settlements. Note the word settlements. In his most celebrated cases, Spitzer never prosecuted the companies in question, leading critics to complain that he used the leverage of his office to bring about outcomes he could never have achieved in court.

Nevertheless, Spitzer's populist stance earned him laudatory national press -- including recogition from Governing as a "Public Official of the Year" -- and also the governor's office in the biggest landslide in state history. Even before taking office, there were doubts that Spitzer could be as powerful as governor as he had been when enjoying the subpoena power of his first elected office.

As governor, Spitzer has not so much shot himself in the foot as shot off one toe at a time. He made powerful enemies by attacking the funding priorities of his state. He got into real trouble when it turned out his staff had used state police more or less as spies in trying to discredit his main political rival, Senate President Joe Bruno.

Spitzer came to Albany promising to clean it up. Like so many reformers, he felt entitled to bend rules in seeking the result he was sure was right. That has been true of his approach throughout his time in public life.

And that's why his many enemies must be quietly gleeful right now. With Spitzer all but admitting the report that he is the client of a prostitution ring -- reportedly caught by a federal wiretap -- it's impossible to say what the fallout of this story will be.

He clearly has hurt his own party's chances of achieving its decades-own goal of taking control of the state Senate, which appeared almost certainly within reach this year. He certainly has put an end to talk that he would become an even bigger figure nationally in Democratic politics.

Most of all, he has illustrated the old truth that there is no fortune in acting like you are smarter, better and morally superior to all those around you when in reality you have human failings that are only magnified by your own professed superiority.

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