Thank God for leisurely winter weekends. It took us two days to absorb the two massive, competing Condé Nast profiles of Eliot Spitzer: one in Vanity Fair (8,577 words) and one in The New Yorker (11,938). Have we learned anything new, other than the fact that if David Margolick and Nick Paumgarten got together, they’d have a book the size of On the Road between them? Yes, in fact: Spitzer apparently likes The New Yorker better than Vanity Fair, and thus The New Yorker likes Spitzer more, too. As the genre of the political portrait edges closer to the celebrity profile, access becomes a measure of quality; whoever gets more wins. In this case, while VF’s Margolick gets a quickie with the Gov in a “utilitarian skyscraper” on Third Avenue, The New Yorker’s Paumgarten literally gets to fly with Spitzer in his turboprop built for eight, surveying the fiefdom below and pondering the vastness of the state. Is it any surprise that his profile is friendlier?
Trick question, actually. Both are fairly boilerplate, rehashing a year’s worth of scandal and hostile tabloid coverage and padding it out with “insights” into Spitzer’s early years. And, since the story of Spitzer’s annus terribilis is essentially a narrative of entropy, both can’t help but embody that entropy. The VF piece starts almost exactly the same way as Steve Fishman’s July profile of the governor in this magazine — with the evocation of what aides call “the full Spitzer.” The bulging veins, the addiction to confrontation, “Day One, everything changes,” the standoff with Bruno, the steamroller quote — all get play within the first few paragraphs. Young Eliot was a nerd with a briefcase, dying to impress Daddy. Is Bernard his Rosebud? “Things might have been very different, [many] theorize, if only old Bernard Spitzer had let young Eliot beat him once or twice at Monopoly.” Another bit of Daddy-related guesswork, this one downright offensive, pops up later: “Attorney General Spitzer did not take on … the real-estate industry, perhaps also for obvious reasons.” Specious much? But wait: Spitzer got interested in driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants “possibly to distract people from Troopergate, possibly to please his Hispanic constituency.”
It would be fascinating to see the governor blow his top in response to this kind of shrugging conjecture, but, notes the author with palpable disappointment, Spitzer remained civil in conversation, despite the goading: “Not even a quarter Spitzer.” In general, Margolick’s piece seems hobbled by the dearth of firsthand info. Some color comes courtesy of the seething Joe Bruno, who twirls his finger near his temple to indicate that his nemesis is nuts, but nobody spills his guts — implicit, accidental evidence that Spitzer still runs an efficient machine. Money maven Jim Cramer, Spitzer’s Harvard Law roommate (and a New York contributor), is “uncharacteristically speechless” — so speechless he doesn’t give a quote. Disgraced consultant Dick Morris, who engineered Spitzer’s first campaign, “isn’t talking.” Neither is Cuomo. When it comes to the big picture, the author is left to philosophize for himself.
By contrast, Paumgarten’s “The Humbling of Eliot Spitzer” is incredibly careful not to engage in guesswork; as a result, it doesn’t engage in much of anything. Twelve thousand words being to The New Yorker what 400 is to the Post — a reasonable amount of space in which to tell a story from beginning to end — Paumgarten happily wallows in such New Yorker–y gentility that the result often registers as a spoof. (The lede invites us to ponder our state’s population-distribution pattern: “Imagine a backward, rotated L, or a mirror image of a long-division tableau.”)
Instead of rehashing the governor’s greatest hits and misses, Paumgarten spends the first third or so of the piece painting a psychological portrait. It’s not easy, and not terribly fascinating either. His Spitzer is “a lawyer, a logician, a tactician, a policy fanatic, but not a deep thinker or a self-doubter. He is not inclined toward wistfulness or wonder, which is not to say that he isn’t caring or curious … He’s didactic … He’s a world-class square, but he can be funny and good-natured. His humor relies on mockery, of others and of himself, although his self-deprecations often end in self-aggrandizement.” Yeah, yeah. Bring on the bulging veins! In the end, we’re left with an off-the-cuff moment when Spitzer calls Cuomo “his lawyer” (and their conversations thus privileged), and the tidbit about the governor going “on a kind of taunting tour of the members’ districts, where he delivered a PowerPoint presentation whose theme was ‘Where’s Waldo?’” Once a nerd, always a nerd, and in this sense, The New Yorker’s droning profile is truer to Spitzer than Vanity Fair’s wholesale purchase of the bully persona. —Michael Idov