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How Spitzer's Fall Showed He Deserves a Second Chance

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New York Governor Eliot Spitzer's fall from office and public grace in 2008 was a tragedy in the strictest classical sense: The substance of his offenses paled before the shock of his stupidity and hypocrisy in committing them. You had to worry even more about his mentality than about his morality.

What made the fall so stunning was not his infidelity and how he committed it but the sheer folly of one as tough and experienced as he'd proven himself to be in pursuit of others' far-more-consequential wrongdoings.

That very toughness and experience made his tragedy a public one, because New Yorkers and all Americans at that time needed a real fighter -- one as good as Spitzer was on offense as well as defense -- against the casino-finance, corporate-welfare regime that would soon throw millions of people out of their homes and jobs.

When I first met and wrote about Spitzer in 1995 as a columnist for the New York Daily News, he was no raging, anti-capitalist radical. He wasn't even what you'd call a model civil-libertarian: He co-chaired the advisory board of the American Alliance for Rights and Responsibilities, which was pushing for legal reforms to balance citizens' rights with some new requirements that they meet certain responsibilities. (I cited examples of such cases in the Daily News column.)

Spitzer's fall 13 years later came from his failure to meet his own responsibilities by patronizing a high-end escort service that he, of all people, had to know was on the wrong side of the law in more ways than one. But a long-forgotten irony in that debacle reminds us why we still need a fighter like Spitzer all the more now. It's that some of his inquisitors in the Bush Justice Department were as guilty of malfeasance in Spitzer's case as he was himself, and partly because they were serving moneyed, partisan interests that feared him.

As the veteran investigative reporter Wayne Barrett and I explained at the time on NPR's Brian Lehrer Show (WNYC), there was no reason to accept the federal prosecutors' claim that Spitzer's case had simply fallen into their laps and that they'd handled it with all due restraint.

According to the prosecutors' narrative, a routine bank review had turned up "suspicious activity;" a routine follow-up by the IRS and then the Treasury Department's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network had showed that a public official was involved; and that bumped the matter to the FBI and the U.S. Attorney, who obtained a wiretap of conversations which, of course, they had to listen to and parse.

After that, they say, they simply informed Spitzer that they'd taped him, as the law also required them to do. And then they stepped back and watched him resign and implode.

Not quite.

The prosecutors were indeed required to tell Spitzer about the wiretap. But they weren't required or indeed permitted to tell anyone else. Spitzer outed himself only after one or more of the dozen assistant U.S. Attorneys and scores of IRS, FBI, and other agents and managers in Washington and New York involved in this case committed the crime of leaking it to the New York Times.

I'm not suggesting that that excuses Spitzer. It doesn't. But I'm asking a question or two about what else was going wrong in his case, parallel to and then inseparable from his fall:

Was the Justice Department really quite as innocent and surprised by its findings as the official narrative insists? Did the Justice Department ever move heaven and earth to turn up its leakers in this case?

This matters, because the legacy of George Bush's disgraced former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and of too many Republican U.S. Attorneys casts a long shadow here. On the Lehrer radio show, Wayne Barrett noted that the Bush Justice Department had prosecuted Democrats six times more often than Republicans.

There are also the legacies of Bush's Wall Street-loving Securities and Exchange Commission, Treasury Department, and other agencies that were facilitating the casino-financing and predatory lending, even as the Justice Department was taking down Spitzer, who might have done more than any other veteran prosecutor to expose and even temper the economic meltdown that was coming.

I can't explain and don't excuse Spitzer's self-destructive streak -- and, with it, his betrayal of the public's trust just when we needed it most. I certainly don't accept the excuse that's often made for people in power, as it was for another former prosecutor, Rudy Giuliani: that power is the greatest aphrodesiac, and that personal indiscretions are the inevitable, even necessary, undersides of a real fighter's strength. Not when they involve behavior as foolish, transparently illegal, and politically destructive as Spitzer's, they're not.

But I do accept that, as Spitzer told Ezra Klein last night, if he becomes New York City comptroller, overseeing vast pension funds, he'll wield the constructive influence on Wall Street's and corporate America's (and unions') premises and practices that only a fighter as brilliant as he can wield effectively.

New Yorkers shouldn't sideline Spitzer -- as they should the motor-mouth mayoral candidate Anthony Wiener, a protege of Senator Chuck Schumer, that front man for Wall Street. They (actually "We;" I'm a New York City voter) should give Spitzer a second chance at wielding power but keep him in harness, hopefully with the help of reporters like Barrett, not the state-licensed, partisan snoopers who brought him down last time.