Spitzer, Stop Hiding From Your Call Girl Past

The documentary Client 9 is a sympathetic portrayal of Spitzer, but doesn't explain his hypocrisy. Tracy Quan advises Spitzer to join an honest, national conversation about sex.

11.07.10 10:40 PM ET

Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, which opened Friday, follows Spitzer's debut, just one month ago, as co-host of CNN's Parker/Spitzer. What should we make of the former governor’s rehab efforts?

Client 9, partly based on Peter Elkind’s book, could be a promo for the CNN show, which, in turn, feels like a sequel to the film. Some, like self-described “gonzo” political consultant and Spitzer nemesis Roger Stone, want you to think Client 9 is a hagiography.

But a movie that dwells on the memories of an escort who saw the governor regularly isn’t really a campaign film. And no, that escort is not the famous Ashley Dupré. It’s a woman named Angelina, who would not appear in the film, but is portrayed by an actress reading a transcript of the filmmakers’ interview with her. She recalls that Eliot was the kind of customer who’s “trying to get his money’s worth.” (I can just hear the attack ads were the ex-Gov to run for office.)

Even the most polyamorous, open-minded wife doesn’t want to know that. You’d like to think that when a guy strays he behaves like a gentleman–if you have to think about it at all. But Angelina tells us she rehabilitated Eliot at the Waldorf Astoria, teaching him how to sit down and act like a civilized date: This happens more often than people outside the trade realize.

Stone, who appears in Client 9 as the embodiment of all that’s anti-Spitzer, insists that Angelina doesn’t exist. “It’s a Hollywood trick,” he told me, suggesting that Angelina was created to make Spitzer look like “a nice guy.” But Spitzer sounds manageable rather than nice. And you don’t have to consort with New York politicians to see why Angelina (assuming she exists) would want to stay off-camera and protect her privacy.

On the question of Ashley Dupré–another escort Eliot saw, but not his favorite, apparently–Angelina is cranky and opinionated. Ashley’s redemption act pisses her off, big time.

(Full disclosure: In 2009, I was asked to consider appearing in Client 9 by one of the producers. I never really made a decision; the moment passed.)

If Spitzer wants to redeem himself, (that's a big if), he should be candid about the laws he was breaking (and upholding).

Putting aside questions about director Alex Gibney’s decision to cast an actress in a documentary and the baggage Spitzer’s persona brings to the film, the biggest problem with Client 9 is that political opponents are given multiple reasons (or excuses, depending on your politics) to discredit both Gibney and Spitzer.

Throughout Client 9, Spitzer’s involvement in passing harsher anti-john laws is the elephant in the room. Spitzer himself says paying for sex is preferable to having extramarital affairs, so we wait for him to address the fact that he increased the penalties for people (mostly men) who buy sex. Like everybody in his social circle, Eliot knows that prostitutes keep marriages together. Instead of wittering about Icarus (a myth he identifies with), Spitzer needs to tell us how his ideas about prostitution and the law have been affected by all this. If he doesn’t really care about the spirit of these laws, why not just admit that?

The film doesn’t help clarify this by asserting that clients are never prosecuted under the Mann Act, which is just wrong. Not that long ago, a retired New York state judge was sentenced to federal prison for violating the Mann Act. Why not say that clients are rarely prosecuted for transporting women across state lines?

While Spitzer gets a lot of sympathy from his liberal friends, Ashley Dupré--outed in 2008 when the New York Times broke the Spitzer scandal– emerges as a scapegoat. In an interview, Gibney told me how Ashley’s handlers sought to control the project when he reached out to her, hoping to include her in the film. I was reminded of the way madams are often reviled, either as obstacles to free access or as exploiters–even when sex workers feel they are benefitting from a protective human layer. Something about the way this was handled caused Gibney to lose sympathy for her.

In 2008, when the media converged, Ashley turned a deeply embarrassing situation into a profitable one. She has posed in Playboy, marketed her music on the Internet and–Gibney argues–allowed people to think Spitzer was her regular client. Are we supposed to be surprised to learn that Ashley saw Spitzer only once? It only takes one session with the wrong guy for disaster to strike.

Despite all that, Client 9 is insightful about how prostitution has changed and how it stays the same. Cecil “CC” Suwal’s Internet skills transformed Mark Brener’s Emperors Club VIP, the escort service Spitzer used. Smart and multifaceted, CC began as an escort and became a madam, but Elkind’s book describes her old-school subservience to Brener. It's a complicated lifestyle. Gibney allows her declaration–"and I love him"–to speak for itself, giving the sex industry (for once) a fully human, unfiltered voice.

But Client 9 also reveals just how confused liberals can be about prostitution. Kristian Stiles, a Spitzer fund-raising consultant, says it was like “working for a rock star.” But she was shocked to learn that a political rock star ... sees hookers? She seems to be in the wrong profession. There’s Jimmy Siegel, a media consultant, who says in France Spitzer  “could have run on this.” As it happens, Nicolas Sarkozy has pandered to French voters by sponsoring a 2003 law that punishes prostitutes for “passive solicitation.”

What does it say about the stunted liberal imagination when Republican trickster Roger Stone is the only person in an Alex Gibney film who can articulate the political concerns of sex workers?

He pounces on Spitzer for busting escort agencies, something Spitzer’s water carriers are happy to overlook. The liberals come across as naive or, in Wayne Barrett’s case, cynical partisans who regard people in the sex industry as collateral damage.

Meanwhile, on his CNN show after the midterm elections, it was startling to hear the former governor discuss presidential “contrition” with Kathleen Parker, his co-host, who looks like a rounder-faced version of his wife.

Last week, Spitzer told The Daily Beast’s Kevin Sessums that President Obama’s position on gay marriage is “dismaying.” And recently on his show, Spitzer told a spokesperson for the Family Research Council that “in every other context in society where we have seen people more willing to be open and forthright about their sexual preference” it has led to “an easing of tensions.” He was talking about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, but johns in public office are as ubiquitous as gay people in the military. It’s time for Eliot to talk about this, not as a personal issue, but a political one.

If Spitzer wants to redeem himself, (that’s a big if), he should be candid about the laws he was breaking (and upholding). Stop snickering every time your transgression is hinted at. For three decades, we’ve been having a national conversation about prostitution laws. Spitzer has been on every side of those laws–making, breaking, enforcing them. It’s time for Eliot to join that conversation, not as a lawmaker, but as a citizen. The sky won’t fall on your head, and it would surely improve the ratings of Parker/Spitzer.  

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Tracy Quan's latest novel is Diary of a Jetsetting Call Girl, set in Provence and praised in The Nation as a "deft account of occupational rigors and anxieties before the crash." Tracy's debut, Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl, and the sequel, Diary of a Married Call Girl, are international bestsellers. A regular columnist for The Guardian, she has written for many publications including Cosmopolitan, The Financial Times, and The New York Times.