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Jewish Journal

Eliot Spitzer, Examined

By Steve Weinberg

May 13, 2010 | 5:52 pm

When Eliot Spitzer self destructed two years ago while governor of New York State, his downfall provided reason to celebrate or despair, depending upon the outlook of the interpreter.

Just short of 50 years old, with a realistic possibility of becoming the first Jewish president in United States history, Spitzer left the governorship after being outed as a sex addict who paid thousands of dollars per hour for high-priced prostitutes despite his status as husband, father of three daughters, and moralist within the realm of electoral politics.

The downfall seemed tragic in so many ways—such a smart, hardworking man; such a picture-book family; such reformist zeal as New York State attorney general and during his brief tenure as governor. But to many powerful individuals who had experienced Spitzer’s professional and personal wrath, the downfall seemed like appropriate punishment.

Although the Spitzer saga is well known, Fortune magazine writer Peter Elkind makes it seem fresh in “Rough Justice: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer” (Portfolio: $26.95, 304 pps.) through in-depth reporting and a well-paced narrative. Elkind does not succeed entirely in explaining the many contradictions housed within Spitzer’s brain and body. Perhaps that would have been an impossible task for any biographer, because Spitzer is famously unreflective. Elkind did, however, obtain access to Spitzer, who shared lots of thoughts about his remarkable successes while still a young man.

The biography is especially relevant circa Spring 2010, because Spitzer has become highly visible again as a wannabe reformer. After all, as New York attorney general, he aggressively attacked illegal and immoral Wall Street practices before the worldwide financial crash centered there. For potential voters who can put aside Spitzer’s fiery temper, self-righteousness and whoring, the fallen governor could still look attractive as the first Jewish president of the United States.

Spitzer’s potential for greatness seemed evident early. Born in 1959, he grew up in the Bronx, as the third and youngest child of Bernard Spitzer and Anne Goldhaber, both from Austrian Jewish immigrant families on New York City’s Lower East Side. A child prodigy, Bernard graduated from college with an engineering degree by age 18 and quickly became a multimillionaire commercial real estate developer in New York City. Anne was still a teenager when they married. The three children, including Eliot, received wonderful opportunities, but had to labor to earn money given the practice of Bernard and Anne to emphasize intellectual and physical labor. Eliot’s sister attended Harvard University and became a lawyer. Eliot and his brother attended Princeton University; the brother became a medical doctor, and Eliot earned a law degree before entering electoral politics.

Bernard Spitzer surrendered his Orthodox Jewish upbringing, because he found the rituals useless: “It was the ethical-moral precept of Judaism I wanted them to respect, not the ritual,” Bernard Spitzer told Elkind. “As the Spitzer parents saw it,” Elkind comments, “you could be an intellectual or a person of faith—but not both. Though their children were raised as Jews, Eliot never had a Bar Mitzvah…and the family didn’t even belong to a synagogue.

Eliot married well, albeit unexpectedly, to Silda Wall, a small-town North Carolina Southern Baptist, whom he met at Harvard Law School. She practiced law but eventually quit to rear children and help Eliot achieve his career in electoral politics, a path that surprised her and displeased her at first because of its disruptive influence on family life. Her loyalty to her husband is a major topic—a theme, really—throughout the book.

The first section of the book chronicles Spitzer’s decision to seek the attorney general position as a Democrat. He relied heavily on family wealth inherited from his parents but downplayed the source of the money, sometimes lying outright when pushed to disclose his income. Spitzer enjoyed the wide-ranging power of the attorney general’s office, and Silda joined him in his enthusiasm. He could exercise his idealism without restraint, taking on the entrenched, anti-public interest practices of Wall Street investment firms, the New York Stock Exchange, multinational insurance companies and banks. Spitzer—because of his pride, reformist zeal, high energy and independent wealth—cared little who he alienated.

In fact, Spitzer became known as a champion of the “little people,” so when he decided to run for governor of New York State, he won easily despite his stiffness as a glad-handing politician.

In Albany, Spitzer learned he could not push around elected legislators in ways that he had pushed around private-sector tycoons. Spitzer’s job approval with the public declined fast, and his enemies—mostly Republicans but Democrats as well—began to look for ways to bring him down.

Elkind explains well what happened to Spitzer in Albany, using terms from tennis—a sport Spitzer played aggressively: “As attorney general, he could kill. He’d come up with the goods, bring suit, threaten to indict, and his opponents would cave. Game, set, match. But as governor, everything was different. The lawmakers could pass a bill without him; he couldn’t pass anything without them. And they didn’t play by his rules…When he smashed his serve and raced to the net, they’d hit back—and they knew how to lob and dink. His type of education hadn’t prepared him for the likes” of powerful legislators.

Within a year after becoming governor, Spitzer was taking so many chances with prostitutes—and laundering the payments hoping to avoid getting caught—that nobody had to bring him down. Spitzer did that to himself, as chronicled masterfully by Elkind.

Spitzer needed therapy, but never sought it. Even after getting caught and resigning the governorship, Spitzer found it difficult to admit he was attending counseling with family members. As a friend of Spitzer told Elkind, “He’s the only Jew in New York who can’t admit he’s seeing a psychiatrist.” 

Steve Weinberg is a regular contributor of book reviews to The Jewish Journal.

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