Public Presence, Private Repentance

A guarded Eliot Spitzer says he’s keeping busy, happily married and looking ahead, but atonement is personal.

10/04/11
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Three years after he left public office in a scandal, Eliot Spitzer says he is closer than ever with his family and doesn’t spend much time thinking about the past, preferring to take pride in his accomplishments.

“I’m thrilled at what I was able to do in the public arena, and the public will evaluate it as it wishes to in the context of what the nation has gone through,” he said in an interview.

“I certainly don’t sit around feeling sorry for myself or beating my chest and saying oh my goodness, woe is me. You can’t live life that way, and I’ve been a very fortunate person in virtually every aspect of my life.”

The former Democratic politician, 52, who spent 10 tumultuous years in the limelight as attorney general and an incomplete term as governor, now spends his time as an executive in the family real estate business, working on his tennis game and teaching at City College, after his stint as a CNN commentator and anchor that began late last year came to an end in July.

In the aftermath of his scandal Spitzer hasn’t gone into seclusion, as did Anthony Weiner after last summer’s Twitter debacle, but neither has he embarked on a public apology tour in the style of President Bill Clinton following Lewinskygate.

Spitzer seems to have carefully crafted a middle ground between the two. He is making public appearances — including a breakfast with young leaders of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty Wednesday and a discussion on the Middle East last Sunday at the 92nd Street Y — but focusing on world and national events, rather than how he has kept his marriage to Silda Wall together. Or what he was thinking when he sabotaged a political trajectory that many believed could have led to the White House.

That path came to an end with a federal probe into suspicious money transfers that led investigators to a high-priced prostitution ring, which Spitzer ultimately admitted patronizing. That was on the heels of a previous wide-ranging investigation into his alleged use of the state police to gather information on the Republican State Senate majority leader.

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In an interview before the High Holy Days, Spitzer gave somewhat guarded answers to questions about the atonement process he cited in his resignation speech on March 12, 2008, when he said, “The remorse I feel will always be with me,” with his wife at his side.

“I don’t think atoning is something you do in public and announce ‘I’ve atoned,’” he said, leaning back in a chair in his small office at Spitzer Enterprises, the real estate empire founded by his father, Bernard. He wore a crisp white shirt with a purple tie and appeared relaxed and jovial, surrounded by scale models of skyscrapers and overlooking real ones from his perch high above Fifth Avenue. “You deal with it in private and hopefully move on.”

Spitzer and his extended family are attending High Holy Day services at Temple Emanu-el of Westchester in Rye. Asked about the nature of his interfaith family, he said he and Wall, who was raised Southern Baptist, are raising their daughters to be “individuals of faith who are immersed in their Jewish heritage.”

He said he approaches Yom Kippur the same way others do, and the same way he did before his political downfall. “We are always growing, dealing — that doesn’t change whether times are good or bad. Every day that I was in government you grew, you dealt with new issues and that continues to be the case today as much as it was six months ago or three years ago.”

Looking back on his career, he said his vigorous prosecutions against insurance companies, brokerages and banks as attorney general, which critics saw as overzealous and political posturing, took on a new light after the economic collapse that struck shortly after he left Albany.

His only regret about those days: “I think we should have been tougher on people,” said Spitzer, who sued investment banks, including Bear Stearns, Credit Suisse and Goldman Sachs for inflating stock prices (the case was settled) and mutual fund brokers for giving special privileges to select investors, among many other cases. “Look what happened in 2008. The economic cataclysm this nation has lived through was a direct consequence of the structural flaws on Wall Street we were talking about.

“There were many back then and still many who want to deny that, trying to rewrite history, and they’re wrong. They often have enough money to try to mask over their egregious violations of public trust. But they have set our nation’s economy on a trajectory that is deeply problematic, and we tried very hard. ...  Take the issue of sub-prime lending: We said to the banks this is dangerous and it’s going to metastasize.

“The banks and the OCC [Office of Comptroller of the Currency] said you don’t have jurisdiction … don’t do it, but we see what happened to AIG. We shined a light and said this is a deeply troubling company; many of the agencies that should have done things didn’t, but such is life. If people say I picked a few fights, [that maybe] I regret some of those fights — they are woefully mistaken. Not only were we right to pick those fights, but we shined a light on some practices on Wall Street that were deeply fraudulent and problematic.”

Often asked if he imagines a political comeback, Spitzer seems to have closed the book on that prospect. “People are very kind and they raise it. I’m flattered. ... I loved it, did it for a fair number of years, but now I’m [moving] on to other stuff.

“The singular focus that some people have on politics as the way to contribute — and I don’t say this to diminish what can be accomplished in the political world obviously — but it is far from the only way to contribute. If you look at the world at large, anyone who has changed our universe over the last 10, 30, 50 years you’d be hard-pressed to believe that a couple of politicians are on that list. It’s really the scientists, the tech guys, people who led social movements and others.

“What the future holds I simply don’t know, but I enjoy teaching and writing.”

Cynthia Darrison, a close Spitzer confidante who raised money for his attorney general campaigns and managed his 2006 gubernatorial bid, said she wouldn’t rule out the possibility that he’ll work in public service again, though perhaps not in an elected position.

“Eliot was, and is, brilliant,” said Darrison, now a consultant. “I hope his future plans will enable him to continue to contribute to the public discourse. You don’t have to be in elected office to influence the discussion. There are endless other routes he could take.

“I give him tremendous credit for remaining on the public scene and for his efforts to influence the discussion.”

A Jewish organizational leader who has met with Spitzer several times since he left office described him as “hungry to be paid attention to and listened to. He believes he still has a lot to offer, which I think he probably does.”

The leader, who requested anonymity because contributors to his organization are angry about Spitzer’s Wall Street crusades, said that the ex-politician might someday be a good appointee for a state or federal job. “The question is, is there someone out there who will be able to take the flack for bringing him back in?”

On several occasions in The Jewish Week interview, Spitzer expressed gratitude for his relationship with his wife who, in a much-analyzed moment, stood almost expressionless at his side as he admitted his failings and resigned from office (a spectacle that partially inspired the CBS drama “The Good Wife”). Asked how the couple was able to move on, Spitzer spoke only in general terms.

“Life evolves,” he said. “I’m the luckiest guy in the world in terms of the daughters I have, the spouse I have. We have a wonderful family, and I look at others who go through their own trials and tribulations. Most, fortunately for them, whatever the ups and downs, get to do it in private, which is probably the better way.

“But I see lots of folks who have gone through tough moments. Some make it and some don’t, but all I can tell you is I’m fortunate. We’ve got a great family.”

In his recent book, “What Was I Thinking?”, sociologist William Helmreich posits that powerful people, including Spitzer, often trip themselves up in an almost deliberate, though often subconscious, manner.

“If he didn’t want to get caught, why would he use George Fox, a close friend and major fundraiser of his, as his alias?” said Helmreich in a phone interview, referring to Spitzer’s personae vis a vis the prostitution ring. A professor at CUNY Graduate Center, Helmreich theorizes that Spitzer felt a conflict between his secret life and his straight-laced upbringing and sought to end it so he could begin healing.

But Spitzer declined to address that notion in the interview. “I really don’t waste time responding to other people’s speculation. I’ve said everything I have to say about that.”

When asked about his reaction to the similar public downfall of Weiner, Spitzer tended to universalize that event, as he does his own fall from grace. “There are personal travails and tragedies that befall virtually everybody at some point in time, and you hope for them that they survive it as best as possible, learn from it to the extent they can, want to, or should and move forward. You don’t wish anybody ill; you just wish them the best and kind of understand it.”

He declined to comment on the performance of his most recent successor, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, but did offer an opinion on the Jewish vote and President Barack Obama.

“I’m a little mystified that there is such discontent with the president over Israel policies,” he said. “There are always issues of tonality and little dustups that occur along the way, like Vice President [Joe] Biden being there when announcements are made about new [settlement] construction, and that leads to diplomatic kerfuffle. But in terms of the larger arc of the relationship, this president has been as stalwart a supporter of Israel as you can imagine.”

Looking ahead, Spitzer said he will continue working in the family business, but down the road he’d like to find something else that is “intellectually challenging that contributes in some way. Life is a matter of waking up and trying to do something useful and productive, taking care of your family and having some fun along the way.”

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10/06/2011 - 08:11

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