Writer Reconsiders Spitzer as 'World-Class Square' New Yorker writer Nick Paumgarten profiled Eliot Spitzer in December as a hard-charging, straight-ahead governor. Now that Spitzer is resigning from New York's top elected office amid a prostitution scandal, the writer takes a second look.
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Writer Reconsiders Spitzer as 'World-Class Square'

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Writer Reconsiders Spitzer as 'World-Class Square'

Writer Reconsiders Spitzer as 'World-Class Square'

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In a lengthy New Yorker piece published just three months ago, Eliot Spitzer's tumultuous first year as governor of New York was detailed by a writer who spent ample time with Spitzer and his people. The writer, Nick Paumgarten, reported Spitzer's aides referred to something called "the Spitzer Brand." This meant that when it came to his political philosophy, there was certain righteousness, a clear delineation of right and wrong, a progressive outlook. This week, of course, the Spitzer Brand seemed not to apply to his personal life. Nick Paumgarten reflected on the truncated career of Governor Spitzer in our studios yesterday. He came here directly after the resignation press conference.

Can you just give us a sense of the anticipation in the room?

Mr. NICK PAUMGARTEN (Writer, The New Yorker): The mood was weirdly subdued. You could look around the room and see some of his staffers who looked very upset. I mean, once the governor came out to announce his resignation, you could see some of them seemed to be on the verge of tears.

STEWART: When you first got a message on your BlackBerry that said, Eliot Spitzer involved in prostitution ring. That was Monday around two o'clock - I think that's when I got mine.


STEWART: What did you think?

Mr. PAUMGARTEN: My first thought was that it was a hoax, that someone had actually - one of his enemies had hacked onto the New York Times website and put up fake story. I mean, that just goes to show how shocking this is, and how credulous even some of his skeptics are, and were.

STEWART: The way you describe Eliot Spitzer in this article you wrote for the New Yorker - I am just going to read a little bit of it. "He's a world class square."

Mr. PAUMGARTEN: I was hoping you wouldn't read that.

STEWART: "He can be funny and good-natured."


STEWART: "He wears only white button-down shirts, which he buys at Brooks Brothers. He bought a blue one once, quote, '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."

Mr. PAUMGARTEN: It's a pretty loaded paragraph, and right now it adds a whole new resonance to it, doesn't it?

STEWART: It does. I'm wondering, as you go back, and you think about the time you spent with him, and as you re-read your article, do you think about interactions you had with him, do you think about them differently? Do you think, wow, you know what, we've heard the word "moral" a lot, but...?

Mr. PAUMGARTEN: Well, yeah, I've gone over a lot of that stuff in my mind. And my interactions with him - actually, when you're with him, he's a fairly natural, charming guy. But the "world class square" bit, you know, I really did think - my read on him was that this was not a guy who was very deep. Obviously he has his complexities. Someone who is prone to rage in the way that he is. You know, he has these famous temper tantrums. Obviously someone with some issues, but, you know, when I first went in to meet him he said, oh, are you going to write about my childhood, in this sort of disdainful way.

And I said, well, I thought - guess not. I guess you're sort of immune to that kind of, you know, analysis. Let's look at your childhood. Let's do the Freudian reader view. And everybody you talk to, his friends, his closest friends, would say, oh, with Eliot, what you see is what you get. He's not a deep person. He's just a hard charging guy, and I think obviously that's not true. As we all suspect, it's never true of anyone, and certainly wasn't true of him. I think his friends were as shocked by this, even his closest friends, as those of us who only spent a little time with him.

STEWART: Before this past Monday, what - let's say Eliot Spitzer had to quit for another reason. Say his wife became ill, he decided he was going to leave the governor's mansion. Before this Monday, what would have been his legacy as governor of New York?

Mr. PAUMGARTEN: It would have been a complicated first year. He made some enemies. He had some strategic and tactical blunders. You know, there were some things he did wrong. OK, he had this whole thing with Joe Bruno where he may or may not have had the state police look into Joe Bruno's travel records. He threatened some of his political rivals, you know, using profanity on the phone, and that became a big thing. The steamroller comment, which is really well-known.

You know, he had a tough first year, but when you think of the first year of a four-year, or even an eight-year term, or pair of terms as governor, you think of the first year as sort of an attempt to gain field position. It's sort of - they were jostling to make it so that they would have the position to do the things they'd want down the road. So, when something like this comes along, it sort of makes all the jostlings of the first year seem really, really trivial.

STEWART: Explain who Joe Bruno is for our listeners, and we've got one in Moscow.

Mr. PAUMGARTEN: Right. Joseph Bruno is the majority leader of the Senate, and sort of a long-time power-broker in Albany. When Eliot Spitzer came to be governor, he sort of went after Bruno to try to get, you know, to finish off the Republican majority, and have an all Democratic government that he could then basically - he could do what he wanted. Didn't work out that way.

STEWART: As he said in his press conference today, as he was resigning, to whom much is given, much is expected. And he was someone to whom much was given. For people who really don't know a whole lot about Eliot Spitzer's background, and how he grew up - he grew up, he's to the manor born, a little bit.

Mr. PAUMGARTEN: Absolutely. His father was - he was a real estate baron, actually, in New York. It was a very ambitious family.

STEWART: He's got a sister who's a lawyer, and a brother who's a neurosurgeon, is that right?

Mr. PAUMGARTEN: That's right, and in the family growing up the dinner table conversation was basically political debate. You had to come prepared to defend a position. You didn't just talk about the day's events, or make small talk. It was a very intense, ambitious atmosphere. And so he comes out of that. It wasn't your typical lazy rich kid upbringing. Now, it's possible to read that upbringing in another way. What effect did that have on him as a man? That's probably a discussion for another time. I don't really want to psychoanalyze him from 10,000 feet, or even from a thousand feet away.

STEWART: Given his first 15 months in office, would he have been able to survive politically if he had decided, you know what, I'm not resigning? This is a personal issue between me and my family. I'm just going to stay in office. Did he have the support surrounding him to do that?

Mr. PAUMGARTEN: No. I really don't think he did. He had made a lot enemies, a lot of people had, at best, ambivalent feelings about him. I don't think he had nearly enough support to survive this kind of thing, and that's probably one of the big considerations as he and his family sat in the apartment and tried to decide what to do.

STEWART: What had been Eliot Spitzer's hopes for New York? You hear him described a lot as having this progressive agenda, and wanting to have a more transparent government.

Mr. PAUMGARTEN: You know, it was sort of a grab bag of pragmatic goals. In some ways when you looked at the agenda it wasn't quite as sort of revolutionary or even progressive as you might think. But it was almost to be efficient, sensible, and smart. To fix the way the - it was basically a broken governmental system. Things don't get done because of the way the government works, and I think he had this hope that he could make things work.

STEWART: One thing that we have all been talking about, the producers here on the show, is all right, this is a guy who went after people for corruption. He knows how these things work. He understands how people get caught. He understands paper trails and email trails. How is it that he would engage in this? Is it the hubris? Is it just the "I'm above it all"? Did you see any instance of that when you were following him around?

Mr. PAUMGARTEN: You know, I didn't see it, but I - obviously, I mean, he thinks that he can get away with something that he has seen dozens of other very smart, powerful, canny, well-lawyered people not get away with.

STEWART: It's ironic. I mean when you think about it, the irony, it just drips with irony, this story. I think that's actually what has made it a day two, three, four, story.

Mr. PAUMGARTEN: Right. Right. And, sitting in the pressroom, I was sort of listening to this sort of Robert Altman-esque chatter of the reporters talking into their cell phones, reporting on the air, live. And, you know, hearing all the, you know, what goes around comes around - just one of those sentences after another. But, they actually apply here, you know. It's just - you know, the poetic justice. But, you know, ultimately it's also sad.

STEWART: It is sad. I think it's a little bit sad.

Mr. PAUMGARTEN: For the state of New York, for the people that work so hard for him. For his family, all these things, it's kind of tragic.

STEWART: But, it is a good story.

Mr. PAUMGARTEN: It's a great story, yeah.

STEWART: Nick Paumgarten, thank you so much for sharing your reporting. I really appreciate it.

Mr. PAUMGARTEN: Oh, thanks for having me on.

STEWART: Nick Paumgarten is a writer for The New Yorker.


Hey, don't go anywhere. Coming up on the BPP, don't stop believing, don't do it. When super fans of bands become an actual member of the band, even the lead singer. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

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