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02.04.10

Spitzer's Redemption Strategy

Eliot Spitzer is making fresh noises about a run for statewide office in New York. Lloyd Grove on how Client 9’s Colbert Report appearance was a big step in his return from political purgatory.

Eliot Spitzer is making fresh noises about running against Senator Kirsten Gillibrand in New York. Lloyd Grove on how Client 9's Colbert Report appearance was a big step in his return from political purgatory.

For a guy who insists he's not plotting a comeback, Eliot Spitzer sure looks like he's ready to run for something.

The 50-year-old former governor of New York, who quit in March 2008 after a federal investigation of a prostitution ring caught him patronizing the high-priced talent, has been working hard to repair his shattered image—this week making two back-to-back appearances in which he confronted his scandalous past head-on.

"He wants to be relevant," said one Spitzer pal who was summoned to talk politics late last year.

And even while he publicly scoffs at reports that he's considering entering a Democratic primary race against either Senator Kirsten Gillibrand or State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, Spitzer has been meeting privately with friends to discuss a possible return to public life.

I've spoken to three longtime Spitzer pals who've recently met with the disgraced ex-governor, who clearly hasn't resigned himself to the quiet life of a rich property baron, helping to run the family real-estate empire. One friend says he advised Spitzer that public office is out of the question, but the other two tell me they didn't discourage the idea.

"He wants to be relevant," said one Spitzer pal who was summoned to talk politics late last year. "I think he keeps toying with it—running against Kirsten Gillibrand or running for comptroller. He doesn't have to raise the money. He already has the money, if he decides to do it. I told him he had to consider if this was something he wanted to drag his family back through again, especially if there is anything else [that is, a fresh scandal] out there…I hear that Silda [Spitzer's wife] doesn't want him to do it."

Nicknamed "The Sheriff of Wall Street" when he was New York's aggressive attorney general, Spitzer re-entered the public fray nine months after he left the governor's office, when he launched a column about regulation and finance in the online magazine Slate. These days he is a near-constant presence on cable television, commenting on the shenanigans of the banking industry, and this week, he raised the stakes considerably by addressing his own shenanigans on BigThink.com, the online forum of the intelligentsia, and Comedy Central's The Colbert Report.

In his Big Think interview, Spitzer spoke thoughtfully, and with uncharacteristic humility, about his personal failings and the nature of forgiveness—while offering a blushing denial of reports that he wore black socks during sex. And he guffawed good-naturedly at Stephen Colbert's merciless ribbing—especially at the satirist's final question:

"Ben Bernanke, who oversaw the collapse of not only the United States but pretty much the entire world financial system and brought our economy to its knees, has been reappointed as head of the Fed. Does this give you hope for being reelected governor of New York? Because, may I remind you, he screwed everybody!"

"I just became a big fan of Ben Bernanke," Spitzer laughingly retorted.

It's a rare public figure who can emerge unscathed from such a withering barrage of ridicule, but Spitzer managed it, while pursuing a high-risk media strategy that smacks of a classic attempt to inoculate himself against, in this case, the collective memory of "Client 9," as Spitzer was identified in the infamous FBI affidavit.

To some extent, the strategy is working.

Spitzer's situation is "marginally better," he told me during a brief phone conversation in which he listened politely to my theories about his PR strategy and where it might be headed. "I would hate to dissuade you from the story, but just to disabuse you, there are two things you mentioned that I'm not big on. One is hard work, the other is humility. Other than that, I like what you're saying."

Democratic media consultant Hank Sheinkopf, who worked on Spitzer's 1998 attorney general's campaign, said Spitzer probably did himself some good with his performance on Colbert.

"If you can get through Colbert, you can get through anything," Sheinkopf said. But he cautioned that it remains to be seen how the former governor will fare in a soon-to-be-released documentary and book about the sex scandal—a collaboration between journalist Peter Elkind and filmmaker Alex Gibney, who worked on the bestselling book and critically acclaimed movie about the fall of Enron, The Smartest Guys in the Room.

"Eliot might benefit from being the devil you know versus the devil you don't know," Sheinkopf added, "but there are always going to be people who will forever remember him as Client 9."

Yet, Spitzer's peccadilloes don't seem nearly as heinous as the behavior of South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford or, even worse, former presidential candidate John Edwards. And even though he doesn't live in Louisiana—where political scandals have operated by the late Governor Edwin Edwards' famous "dead girl or live boy" rule—Spitzer can take comfort from the fact that Republican senator and notorious john David Vitter has been leading his Democratic opponent in recent polls.

During his Colbert Report appearance, Spitzer jokingly asked his host: "Are you running for office?"

"Are you?" Colbert fired back.

To which Spitzer coyly replied: "I don't have to answer that question."

Not yet anyhow.

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.