As a new documentary chronicling the fall of New York’s audacious governor opens in theaters, Spitzer talks to Kevin Sessums about Citizens United, addiction to escorts, and his new CNN show’s abysmal ratings.
Eliot Spitzer is on his third act in public life. His first one was as New York’s swashbuckling attorney general, the first political official to recognize the malfeasance masquerading as financial wizardry on Wall Street. Early on, he spotted the cooked books at AIG and cleaned up the mutual fund scandal. He then went after Richard Grasso for the pay package of $188 million he received as the chairman of the New York Stock Exchange. He won the governorship, his second act, in a landslide and planned to do to Albany what he had done to the financial sector: clean up the corruption. The second act turned into something that resembled both Greek tragedy and opera buffa as Spitzer infamously found himself in a scandal that involved him frequenting an escort service. He resigned in disgrace amidst the media circus that only a tabloid culture born in a country founded by Puritans can muster. It was, not to be too impolitic about it, a clusterfuck of clucking tongues.
But Spitzer has slowly made his way back into the public arena, and now the curtain is up on his third act. The documentary Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, directed by Alex Gibney, who won an Oscar for his previous documentary, Taxi to the Dark Side, opens on Friday. Spitzer’s new show on CNN, Parker Spitzer, airs each weeknight at 8 p.m. His co-host is Kathleen Parker, the hard-nosed Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist with the soft South Carolina accent.
Silda Spitzer, Eliot’s wife, is from North Carolina. They met at Harvard Law School and have three daughters. They celebrated their 23rd wedding anniversary on October 17.
I met Spitzer at his office up at CNN on the day after the mid-term elections.
It’s the day after the midterms. Do you feel bittersweet that you could have been celebrating your election to your second term as governor of New York? And is it maddening that, of all people, Andrew Cuomo is the Democratic candidate who was elected in your place? He’s not your favorite person. As attorney general of New York he helped begin your downfall by looking into “Troopergate” [in which Spitzer was admonished for using state police to track the whereabouts of New York Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno] and refused to pursue the Richard Grasso case any further on appeal, as he could have, almost as if to spite you.
As a lawyer, I can tell you that’s a compound question. So I’ll answer the point I choose to. Look, obviously it’s disappointing not to still be in that arena, especially when the issues that are facing us are so enormous. I think I speak not only for a lot of Democrats but for a lot of progressives today when I say that we are seeing the trend line going in the wrong direction in terms of our having failed to capture the public’s imagination over the last two years—in doing what needed to be done and explaining what had to be done. So a moment that was so powerful two years ago has now been completely eviscerated. So on a personal level, yeah, it was bittersweet. I had fun last night on the CNN coverage but there was a moment when I thought it would have been nicer to have been somewhere else.
You wake up every day and live life to its fullest and do what you can do. Was I deeply disappointed? Kind of hard not to have been.
Do you regret only a couple of months ago having described now-Governor-Elect Cuomo as “the dirtiest and nastiest politician” you know?
Look, I don’t go back and take back statements. I don’t revisit statements like that.
OK. So you don’t regret it.
I just don’t revisit them.
Have you called to congratulate him?
Ahhh ... no ... I haven’t called any candidates to congratulate them.
Did you vote for him? You could have voted for Jimmy McMillan of The Rent Is Too Damn High Party instead.
I never disclose the candidates I vote for.
I’ll disclose right here on the record that I’ve hired prostitutes—though that was about 15 years ago now and they were male ones—just so I’m not just another hypocritical reporter sitting in judgment of you. I voted the straight Democratic line except for Senator Schumer. My vote turned Green instead. When Schumer, in what I considered an act of New York state cronyism, pushed Mukasey’s nomination as Bush’s attorney general through the judicial committee by striking a deal with Senator Feinstein, I promised myself at that moment I would not vote for him for re-election. Mukasey was a champion of the Unitary Executive Theory—just like John Yoo—and he used it to rationalize a president's approving torture.
Interesting. Where are you from? You have an accent.
The Carolina accent isn’t quite as deep as the one from Mississippi.
Are you a fan Chuck Schumer’s? He’s certainly got his fingers dug down deep into the pockets of Wall Streeters and they will never be your crowd.
I don’t these days pass judgment on any of my relationships. I would say that Chuck and I always tried to work together. There were certainly disagreements—especially, yes, where he was on Wall Street issues. I made no secret over the years that when we were beginning those investigations and undertaking something structurally that was more important than any single case, I did not get a lot of support from any senior elected officials in Washington.
Your early legal crusades against AIG and the mutual fund scandal were harbingers of the financial collapse coming our way because of very smart people doing very bad things. Those people had to know that a reckoning was on its way. I’ve referred to the most outrageous of these malefactors, to the consternation of some of my best friends, as “economic terrorists,” because they blew up our economy.
You have to be careful. Using the term “terrorist” is a loaded term. That is a word that is freighted with so many ... well ... collateral implications. You make trouble for yourself when you use such a term to describe what happened in the financial world. Here’s what I would say. And I’ve said it repeatedly. The structure of Wall Street was designed to pad the pockets of Wall Streeters, not to do right by their clients, their customers, the Americans who were trusting them with their life savings. At that level it was fundamentally flawed and we are all now paying this unbelievable price for it.
Do you know the term “pleonexia”?
Who? What? I thought I had a pretty good vocabulary. What is this? Someone from Mississippi is making me look stupid?
It’s Greek in origin I think. It’s a term used when the words “greed” and “avarice” are not enough to describe what a person is experiencing. It is to be accursed with the need for having. It’s mentioned in the New Testament in the original Greek in the books of Corinthians and Luke. Pleonexia takes on the aspects of idolatry that can become so strong an urge in one’s life. Maybe that’s what was going on down on Wall Street before the meltdown. It was spreading like a virus.
Pleonexia—that’s a great word. I’m going to try and use it on TV tonight on my show. But here’s what happened down there. Greed became more than good. People thought it was all that life was supposed to be, and then as a result our social contract fell apart. That is the largest issue we are facing as the result of all of this and what this election was all about: our social contract is disappearing.
Do you think the Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court contributed to the Republicans winning in such numbers? They were awash in money through all these front organizations that were put together after that decision.
This might surprise you. I think the Court got it right. Here’s why. Nobody has been able to answer this question—Elena Kagan, my friend who argued the case, The Wall Street Journal editorial board, or anybody else who is vehemently opposed to it. What is the difference as a matter of law and theory between what they did as Citizens United and what Rachel Maddow does on MSNBC or what I do on CNN. It all could be defined as corporate speech. I never believe in limiting speech. I have an enormous issue with the lack of disclosure.
Well, you do sort of have a track record of seeing corporations as criminals so therefore I guess you could argue that they should then have the same free speech rights as a person as well. But I have a hard time thinking of a corporate interest as a human one.
But if you want to say no in the Citizens United case then do you tell The New York Times not to print its editorial page?
On another legal matter, do you agree with Obama that he had no choice as president defending the law of Congress to appeal the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell ruling that said it was unconstitutional? Or do you agree with Ted Olson that he did not have to?
He didn’t have to. He should have gotten rid of it with an executive order. He is the President! He is the commander-in-chief!
Is he a coward about this issue?
I don’t want to call the president of the United States a coward.
I will. On this issue, he’s a coward. He is playing politics with people’s lives. It’s cowardly.
Let me put it this way. From the very beginning I have been very disappointed in his positions on a lot of civil rights issues, on a lot of state secrecy issues, a lot of judicial moments when he could have actually chartered a very different course than his predecessor and he hasn’t. And certainly Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is one of them.
And on gay marriage he is to the right of Dick Cheney and Ken Mehlman and Ted Olson. It would be almost poetic if it weren’t so sad and disheartening that on the civil rights issue of our time, our first African-American president will be seen on the wrong side of history. Again, for political reasons he’s playing with people’s lives.
It dismays me, too. It’s dismaying. I am proud to say that I was the first governor in America to propose that same-sex marriage be legal and it still appalls me where we are on this issue in this country. Appalls me.
Let’s get off politics. Let’s talk about your show. And let’s be blunt. Your ratings are not good. I love Kathleen Parker, but was there ever any discussion about putting your wife, Silda, in that seat next to you? Now that’s a show we’d all watch.
Never a discussion about that. We have our own television show at home every night. The opening argument section. The whole thing.
On the eve of the election, Kathleen looked over at you and said, “Has anyone ever told you how adorable you are when you are in denial?” That made me think of a moment in the new documentary—the only time I really shook my head at you—when you were asked if you were addicted to hiring the escorts and you said, no, it was more about desire. Talk about denial. Isn’t that what addiction is all about—a desire that one cannot control that ends up being destructive?
OK. When I watch the film I’ll remember this and think about that. That’s interesting.
Do you think you suffered from your own kind of pleonexia—for power and pussy? But I guess most politicians—except for Barney Frank—suffer from that, huh.
No, I don’t think so. No. No. No.
OK. Whatever you say. Another thing that struck me that Kathleen said—or wrote—was when she was writing about Glenn Beck’s recent rally in D.C. and she cited his admitted alcoholism and called that rally an example of the “grandiosity of the addict,” that made me think of you as well. There was a grandiosity to your legal crusades and determination to sweep corruption from Albany when you were elected governor—there was a grandiosity to your public goodness—while at the same time you were privately addicted to your call girls. There is even the grandiosity of Greek tragedy to your fall.
I have said before, hubris certainly found its way into my life—creeped in is maybe a better way to say it. I have this T-shirt at home and on it, it says, HUBRIS IS TERMINAL.
Well, not terminal. You survived. You’re sitting here at CNN.
It was pretty damn close.
Were you ever suicidal during the darkest days after your resignation as governor?
No. Absolutely not. Never entered my mind. You wake up every day and live life to its fullest and do what you can do. Was I deeply disappointed? Kind of hard not to have been.
You never had a bar mitzvah. Do you regret that? How would your life have been different if you had experienced that as a Jewish rite of passage? Would you have been spared these other rites of passage you had to go through?
Hmmm ... that’s interesting. That’s one of those things I’ve never revisited either.
Maybe you should start revisiting things. I can start coming in everyday at this time and we can talk. OK, Eliot? Sounds like you need to.
But that was 38 years ago when I didn’t have my bar mitzvah. Wow.
Well, you can still have a bar mitzvah, can’t you. You still have time to become a man, Eliot.
There’s still time. Yes.
Is Silda still a Southern Baptist? Did she convert to Judaism when you married?
No. She’s still a Southern Baptist.
You two went through a crucible of fire during your scandal days.
Crucible is a fair word for it. It was a rough stretch. That which does not kill us makes us stronger.
Did you turn to Nietzsche back then?
I never could understand Nietzsche when I’d try to read him. Too complicated for me.
There is a theory that your show’s ratings are not as good as they should be because even liberal women refuse to watch you. And it’s not so much that you visited escorts—that they can forgive—but it was the pain on Silda’s face when she stood by you at that press conference. It’s the pain on your wife’s face that certain women will never forget or forgive you for putting there. Did you tell her to come with you that day or was she there of her own volition?
That’s interesting. Wow. Interesting. But she was there by her own choice.
How can you find redemption in that regard?
I’m not sure you do. I’m not sure you can.
One final question. Jerry Stiller and your dad Bernard when they were young men were both attempting to court your mother, Ann, up in the Catskills and trying to win her hand. What do you think would have happened if Jerry Stiller had married your mother? How would your life have been different?
I would have been Ben Stiller and that’s a scary thought.
Or you would have ended up Jerry Seinfeld’s sidekick. Eliot Spitzer as George Costanza. That’s an even scarier thought, governor.
Kevin Sessums is the author of the New York Times bestseller Mississippi Sissy, a memoir of his childhood. He was executive editor of Andy Warhol's Interview magazine and a contributing editor of Vanity Fair and Allure. He is a contributing editor of Parade. His new memoir, I Left It on Mountain , will be published by St. Martins Press.