Steve Fishman: Spitzer's Finally Fighting Back, But Is He Eliot Reagan?

20070724spitzer.jpg

Governor Spitzer finally abandoned his silly business-as-usual tactic today, giving up the “I’m going to get back to doing the people’s business” that invariably means something is amiss. The Republican-led State Senate had suggested that it might act like a real legislative body, one with oversight responsibilities and subpoena powers, and investigate whether the governor knew that a top aide was tracking Senate leader Joe Bruno’s use of state vehicles. And Spitzer finally broke his silence on the burgeoning scandal to warn the senator that, in effect, the senators shouldn't punch above their weight. Never one to be outlawyered, the governor has apparently been reading up on the state constitution, and he charged in a statement that New York's Senate does not have the constitutional authority to investigate the executive branch. In other words, he seemed to say that he won't cooperate with any investigation and will instead invoke an Empire State version executive privilege. Whether the potential drama of a constitutional showdown will, in fact, entice the Republican Senate remains to be seen.

For Spitzer, so accustomed to being the aggressor, it must have felt good to finally throw a punch. After all, he believes he has right on his side, even now; it's as fundamental a character trait for the governor as his famously quick temper. It sustained him as attorney general, when, as he once told me, “we were always right on the facts.” And it propels him as governor, where he believes that his charge is a righteous one: to clean up the capital. (Specifically, as aides privately make clear, he believes his charge is to do away with the likes of Joe Bruno, who for them is representative of a corrupt political culture.) But the thing is that everyone in Albany claims to have signed up for the Spitzer agenda these days; they're all reformers now, Joe Bruno among them. But it’s Spitzer’s zeal that they hate. Both Republicans and Democrats — and for the first time Democrats are publicly speaking out — can’t stand his self-assuredness, and his apparent belief that in the service of right much is permitted. As a Democratic assemblyman told me, "If they think they’re right, they think anything they do is right.” And that’s the problem with this recent scandal. It reinforces the image proposed by his Wall Street adversaries that he is a bully who will stop at nothing to get his way.

Spitzer (or his administration) will even, it seems, do the pointless. After all, the remarkable aspect of this botched episode is that the upside was so low. Darren Dopp, the recently suspended communications director who botched the project, surely knew that Bruno’s use of state vehicles, while not a fastidious interpretation of fiduciary responsibility, didn’t violate the letter of “porous” state law. So why take this risk?

Spitzer’s other problem is his claim that he didn’t know the most important details of Dopp’s assignment. That may well be true, but if it is, then we have to recalibrate our view of this governor. Is he Reagan, looking out the window of the passenger seat? That’s not what we’re supposed to believe. Eliot Spitzer is the governor who, as he explained to me, sleeps with his BlackBerry by his bedside, ever alert to the state’s nocturnal needs. When his budget director e-mailed at 4:45 a.m. Spitzer e-mailed back at 4:46, just “to show I was attentive." He commands the state by commanding the details. His hand is always on the wheel. In meetings with Spitzer, he is energized by the details, the fascinating aspects of cell-phone coverage upstate or education formulas downstate. Are we to believe that Dopp freelanced this project Iran-Contra style? And, if so, what are we supposed to believe of the rest of Spitzer's on-top-of-everything shtick? —Steve Fishman