The former governor of New York makes no excuses about his past.
“Life is a series of chapters, and you live and you learn and you go on,” he said. “I make no bones to people that I’ve seen peaks and I’ve seen valleys.”
But Eliot Spitzer ’81 — activist USG chairman, widely praised state attorney general, disgraced and scandalized former governor of New York, and now host of a primetime CNN talk show — also refuses to make excuses about his future.
“You keep going forward,” he said. “You don’t need to keep going forward — you could say that I’m done, retire and crawl under a rock. You could say, you know, I’m done with the public existence and say that’s it. But that’s not been my choice.”
After Spitzer’s patronage of a New York prostitution service became public in March 2008, the Democrat resigned the governorship and retreated into the solitude of private life. But after a brief interlude, Spitzer has returned to the spotlight, engaging in the national political conversation while simultaneously rebranding his public image and raising questions about a return to elected office. And the “sheriff of Wall Street” is as hard-nosed as ever.
“Joe Bruno was corrupt, full-stop,” Spitzer said in an interview at CNN’s New York headquarters two weeks ago, referring to the former state senate majority leader plagued by ethics scandals. “He’s since been convicted and, whatever happens to that case, the record is eminently clear,” he added forcefully, launching into a passionate tirade against state government officials for their failure to adequately investigate the matter.
It is the same energy that once had many Democrats lauding him as a potential presidential candidate.
Spitzer is back.
He has refused to peacefully fade into obscurity. He is playing pundit on CNN, playing professor at the City College of New York, playing columnist at Slate; after a rough fall, the man who many thought had written his political obituary is on the rebound.
The activist Princeton years
Spitzer’s political journey began at Princeton, where he majored in the Wilson School. Spitzer made his mark on campus as USG chairman, leading the student campaign to encourage University divestment from South Africa as a response to the country’s policy of apartheid. To Spitzer, it was “one of the issues that defined the moment.”
“The USG has consistently failed to fulfill either its potential or its purpose,” Spitzer wrote in The Daily Princetonian in April 1978 during a run for class delegate. The USG, Spitzer added, must “develop a statement expressing our view of the University as a catalyst for social change.”
Long-time friend Jason Brown ’81, who went to high school with Spitzer at Horace Mann in the Bronx, confirmed this socially aware approach to student governance.
“He took what was not a particularly activist student government and really brought it into the 20th century,” Brown said. “He is an activist at nature, and I think you see that earliest in his time as USG president.”
Outside of the USG, friends described Spitzer as hard-working and serious.
“Eliot was very friendly but intense,” Runa Alam ’81, a classmate of Spitzer’s, said in an email. “He was very disciplined with school work, but casual in his mannerism. He had a passion for discussion/debate, national and global issues, squash and student politics.”
Peter Elkind ’80, author of “Rough Justice: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer” and former editor-in-chief of the ‘Prince,’ agreed with Alam’s assessment.
“He was very serious at a young age, and that includes student government. He applied himself to the issue of student government which certainly, when looking back, seemed small, but it’s the seriousness that he applied to balance the budget in New York,” Elkind said, noting that Spitzer thought about issues like “a classic Woodrow Wilson School” student.
However, Elkind added that Spitzer did indeed have a sense of humor. On Spitzer’s senior class questionnaire, when asked for biographical information about his family, Spitzer wrote in circled capital letters “None of your business.”
“I was an early vigilant voice in terms of protecting privacy, what can I tell you,” Spitzer joked.
The new Spitzer
Spitzer’s intellectual approach to politics has been highlighted on his CNN talk show, “In the Arena,” retitled from “Parker Spitzer” after columnist Kathleen Parker left the show in February. Despite many media reports of tension between the two co-hosts, Spitzer wrote the comments off as “chatter.”
“For a couple months that Kathleen and I did the show together, we put on a good show and we enjoyed it,” Spitzer explained. “The folks in the executive suite decided to take it in a slightly different direction, and that’s what we’re doing. The last thing I’m going to do is comment on anything other than we’re putting on a good show and having a lot of fun.”
Elkind described the on-air dynamic as “almost an awkward fit.”
“Eliot is such a strong personality — it’s hard for anyone to be his co-host,” he said. “He inevitably dominated the show, and that causes conflict and tension, and that’s why it inevitably didn’t work.”
“Parker Spitzer,” and to a certain extent “In the Arena,” was dogged by poor ratings, especially among the crucial 25-to-54-year-old demographic. However, Spitzer said that the show’s ratings were not important.
“I don’t look at the ratings — like any TV show you start and try and figure out what works and doesn’t work,” he said. “I think we’re putting on a good show that people are enjoying,” he added later.
The change from a co-hosted show to a program with Spitzer at the helm alone has not fazed him, he said.
“It’s sort of a difference between playing singles and doubles. It’s easier at some levels to play singles — you know the court, you have to control and set the tempo and set the rhythm. Doubles, you’re doing it with someone else,” he explained.
Off the set, Spitzer has spent time teaching a course on public policy at the City College of New York while also writing a column for Slate. Spitzer said that at each stage in his life, he has tried to make his jobs “exciting, challenging and useful,” regardless of his title.
“The common denominator, I hope, is that there is some desire to be intellectually honest about what’s going on in the world — I tried to participate in that public debate,” he said, turning the conversation to his accomplishments as state attorney general, something he often did during the interview.
Still, though Spitzer has tried to base his career on his record in Albany, the scandal that forced him out of office has continued to plague him in the media. Depictions ranging from the documentary “Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer” to the CBS legal drama “The Good Wife” — partly inspired by his extramarital affair — have once again cast Spitzer in a negative light.
“The movie that I get the most feedback from, frankly, is ‘Inside Job,’ which, again, isn’t about me,” Spitzer said, referring to the 2010 documentary detailing the recent financial crisis. However, Spitzer said that on matters from his personal misdealing to his record as governor, he will fight “their falsehoods, lies and efforts to rewrite history.”
“I’ve always said you’re defined by your enemies more than by your friends,” he said. “I don’t read most of the stuff that’s written about me. I don’t know if that’s bizarre or not, but when you kind of know who you are and what you’ve done, you don’t need to hear someone else’s depiction of it.”
A potential image makeover
Although Spitzer denied that he is trying to remake his public image, Lee Miringoff, a scholar on public opinion at Marist College in New York, who has studied Spitzer, said that if Spitzer wanted to re-enter public life, he was doing the right things.
“It’s hard to get inside the heads of politicians to check their motivations,” Miringoff said. “Whether he’s trying to politically resurrect his career or trying to create more options, then what he’s doing is probably the right thing ... If he wants to get back in the elected side of public life, then at least talking content on CNN is OK as a strategy.”
However, Alam said she took Spitzer’s public resurfacing as a genuine reflection of his personality.
“It seems that the desire to be involved with national and international issues, and to try to effect change in a positive way, was what drove Eliot during his student days, and it would be logical to say that this is what is driving him now,” she said.
Spitzer brushed off the label of an image makeover, saying that his post-scandal activity was not a means to an end.
“I’m doing things that are interesting and useful, that create an interesting career,” he explained. “That’s what I’d imagine most people would do ... Regardless of what you’ve been through or not been through, that’s what you wake up in the morning wanting to do.”
Spitzer did admit, however, that his inability to truly participate in public life was “frustrating,” especially during the recent economic recession, in which his expertise on financial regulation and economic development could have been useful. As attorney general, Spitzer actively investigated fraud and other illegal activity on Wall Street, increasing the profile of the previously limited public office.
“Have I often said ‘Gee, I wish I had still been in office over the course of 2008, ’09, ’10, to try and participate and contribute a little bit to the economic cataclysm that we went through?’ Sure,” he said.
He added, however, that his talk show has provided him with an opportunity to speak out.
“I view the CNN show as an opportunity to participate in the conversation we’re having about all these national issues,” he explained. “This is what we want to do at eight o’clock every night.”
Elkind said that he thought Spitzer was nonetheless determined to “matter.”
“He desperately wants to be a force in the public policy debate,” Elkind said. “He’s a very smart guy and it pains him terribly that the very issues that he cares so much about and was out in front of, and are now so critical — financial reform regulation, government regulation — they’re so critical now, and his voice has been muffled as a result of those personal mistakes.”
After his media appearances, the lectures, the outreach and the hiring of a public relations firm, many pundits have suggested that Spitzer may decide to run in New York City’s mayoral election in 2013. Miringoff said that this may be an uphill battle, referring to a poll he oversaw which indicated that 62 percent of New York City voters said they did not want Spitzer to run for mayor. Miringoff called these numbers “anemic.”
“The scars are still there ... It doesn’t reflect a core support — his numbers are flat across party lines,” he said. “There is no great groundswell calling for his return to elected office. But again, political resurrection is not outside the realm of possibility.”
Spitzer was optimistic about a comeback, though he recognized that his own may not necessarily be in elected office.
“I think the American public believes in comebacks, whether it's sports teams or individuals,” he said. “But comebacks come in all different shapes and sizes. That doesn’t always mean that you’re playing on the same field that you played on last time — sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t.”
It is clear, however, that Spitzer expects to remain on the main stage. When asked about “Parker Spitzer,” the former governor paused.
“I don’t want to start pontificating at the age of 51, when I’ve got 30 years ahead of me,” he said.