Writer Reconsiders Spitzer as 'World-Class Square'

Elliot Spitzer

New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer delivers his resignation with his wife, Silda, at his side on March 12, 2008. Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

Eliot Spitzer won the New York governorship in 2006, campaigning on his record for rooting out corruption, says New Yorker staff writer Nick Paumgarten. Spitzer barreled into office with a promise of top-to-bottom changes — only to meet with resistance from some of the state's longest-standing politicians.

In December, Paumgarten profiled the rookie governor in an article headlined "The Humbling of Eliot Spitzer."

This week, the turmoil of those initial months was upstaged as Spitzer met with a political disaster of his own making. On Monday, the New York Times posted the news that a federal investigation had named Spitzer as a client of an expensive prostitution ring. On Thursday, he resigned. Lt. Gov. David Paterson takes over on March 17.

Paumgarten remembers that Spitzer didn't much want the reporter digging around in his past, searching for clues to the mentality of the dynamite former prosecutor. "He said, 'Oh, you are going to write about my childhood?' in this sort of disdainful way," Paumgarten says. He describes the former governor as charming in person, if also prone to temper tantrums.

"My read on him was that this is not a guy who's very deep. ... He's just a hard-charging guy," Paumgarten says.

When the news about the prostitution scandal first broke, Paumgarten says, his first thought was that it had to be a hoax. How could the man he'd written about as a "world-class square" possibly have been involved with prostitution? Paumgarten says he has gone over one particular paragraph countless times this week, a section in which Spitzer talks about buying a blue shirt instead of his trademark Brooks Brothers white button-down. He wrote:

"He understands that his idiosyncrasies, his hyperachiever habits, are both salutary and worthy of ribbing. When you are followed around every day by a mob of reporters and aides, your mannerisms, however sincere, can soon seem like affectations. Squareness can come off as shtick. He wears only white button-down shirts, which he buys at Brooks Brothers. He bought a blue one once: 'It was unnerving. Never wore it.' He gets up at five in the morning to jog; he's known for it, and wants you to know it, but if it's a pose it's a hard-earned one. His first thought upon waking each day, he says, is a wish for two more hours' sleep."

"With Eliot," Paumgarten says friends told him, "what you see is what you get."

Now, Paumgarten says, "that's just obviously not true."

A Complicated Legacy

Had Spitzer's term closed at this point without the prostitution scandal, Paumgarten says, his legacy would have focused on a complicated initial year as governor. Spitzer made significant enemies and committed tactical blunders. A telling stumble was Spitzer's aggressive pursuit of State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno; the governor's office is alleged to have inappropriately ordered a police investigation of the Albany powerbroker. Spitzer also notoriously referred to himself as a "steamroller."

When calamity came calling, Spitzer found himself with too few allies. "He had made a lot of enemies," Paumgarten says. "I don't think he had near enough support."

Paumgarten stops short of blaming Spitzer's fall on pure hubris. He marvels that Spitzer thought he could get away with something he has seen other smart people get punished for. The Spitzer saga drips with irony, Paumgarten says.

"Ultimately, it's also sad," he says. "For the state of New York, for the people who believe in him, for his family."

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