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Henry Miller

Henry Miller

Posted March 23, 2009 | 09:11 AM (EST)

AIG And The Return Of Eliot Spitzer


As if the bonuses weren't enough, AIG has managed to bring disgraced former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer back into the political limelight. That raises a fundamental question: What should such a former elected official do to earn his way back into the public trust.

It's been just over a year (March 17, 2008) since Spitzer resigned from office after being caught in a prostitution scandal, notoriously identified initially only as Client 9. The AIG bonus outrage has brought him back, launching a major media blitz that would remind people that he was the first to prosecute AIG aggressively for its excesses. As Attorney General of New York, he had investigated AIG's financial practices, leading to the resignation in 2005 of Maurice "Hank" Greenberg, its longtime chairman, and a $1.6 billion settlement.

As if emerging from a self-imposed one-year exile, Spitzer wrote an article on March 17, 2009, for Slate entitled "The Real AIG Scandal"; he gave an 18-minute interview on March 18 to a public radio show, and he taped for CNN his first television interview since his resignation (which the network aired yesterday, March 22, and promoted aggressively prior to the airing). The combination led to widespread media coverage of his comments, which the Associated Press characterized as "I told you so." Spitzer has written previous articles for Slate, since signing on in December as a columnist, but this outburst of interviews is clearly on a different scale.

Perhaps Eliot Spitzer can help us better understand the AIG debacle. No one has ever disputed his intellect, and he makes the compelling point in his column that, while the AIG bonuses were paid because contracts seemingly required it, "aren't we in the midst of reopening contracts all over the place to share the burden of this crisis? From raising taxes - income taxes to sales taxes - to properly reopening labor contracts, we are all being asked to pitch in and carry our share of the burden."

Yet, he still approaches the problem like a prosecutor, not a problem-solver, posing the question, for instance, "What was the precise conversation among (Fed Chairman Ben) Bernanke, (then-New York Fed official Timothy) Geithner, (then-Treasury Secretary Henry) Paulson, and (Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd) Blankfein that preceded the initial $80 billion grant?" And, in the end, the media blitz seems designed as much to claim credit and rebuild his legacy as to assist the public.

The question remains: How should Spitzer earn his way back into the public trust? Is it enough to take a year off and then write articles and give media interviews?

South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in his book God Has A Dream, writes: "If someone steals my pen and then asks me to forgive him, unless he returns my pen the sincerity of his contrition and confession will be considered nil. Confession, forgiveness, and reparation, wherever feasible, form part of a continuum."

But what has Spitzer's reparation been? How has he made up for the public damage of his actions?

Spitzer was elected Governor with a record 69 percent of the vote, amidst great hopes that he would reform New York's legendarily dysfunctional state government. Instead, he resigned amidst his own scandal 14 months later. His running mate and successor, former Lt. Governor David Paterson, is now running the state during an extraordinary economic crisis and has a public approval rating of 26 percent, according to a recent Marist poll - the lowest rating of any New York governor since 1982, when the poll began.

In his public radio interview with Brian Lehrer, Spitzer said, according to The New York Times: "I've apologized and in my view have acted in the past year the way I should have, which is to say I will remain quiet." - other than, as the Times noted, to offer "a few words" from time to time on public policy issues. But are those "few words" the public's reparation?

In the CNN interview with Fareed Zakaria, Spitzer said: "I would say to [critics] that I never held myself out as being anything other than human. I have flaws as we all do, arguably. I failed in a very important way in my personal life. And I have paid a price for that."

Leaving aside the absurdity of that first statement in the CNN interview, what about the price the public paid? Does Spitzer owe the public more than periodic commentary on public policy issues, which may have the added benefit of being self-promotional? Or can that commentary be of such importance that it becomes reparation enough?

Former President Bill Clinton has spent years organizing major philanthropic efforts to make up for the offense that led to his impeachment by the U.S House of Representatives. His commitment to reparation is clear.

What about Spitzer? To use Archbishop Tutu's analogy, Spitzer still has our pen. Is it enough for him to make good use of that pen, or must he still return it?

The author, Chief Operating Officer of Goodman Media International, the New York-based public relations firm, worked in the Administration of New York Governor Mario Cuomo.