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The Steamroller in the Swamp

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In June, Spitzer and Bruno make their points in Teddy Roosevelt's old office. "It was simply Spitzer acting in charge," says Bruno.  

If Silver is an ally, albeit a tricky one, Joe Bruno, 78, seems a central-casting nemesis. Not everyone is so “blessed” as to be born with a rich father, Bruno likes to say, and then describes his “miserably unhappy childhood”—no central heat, one toilet for eight kids. Bruno, Skidmore class of 1952, is a Rensselaer County businessman, and breeds horses. He’s a former boxer with a twice-broken nose, a real tough guy to Spitzer’s tough talker; a self-made man to Spitzer’s modesty-in-the-face-of-inherited-wealth act. And he has, as he likes to say, “the common touch”—he’s never joked about overcoming “the disadvantage” of Yale Law school, a crack Spitzer makes about friends. Bruno winks across the room at a press conference or merrily cups his hands to mime mud balls, which he accuses Spitzer of slinging. An ongoing FBI investigation into corruption is said to focus on whether a business Bruno consulted for got favorable governmental treatment, but even a federal probe can’t dampen his high spirits. Bruno always has a quick return. Albany dysfunctional? “Pure nonsense,” he retorts.

From the start, Bruno resented Spitzer’s condescension and barely concealed it. “Spitzer has an attitude about him, he really does, like he’s kind of above it all. He thinks I’m a street kid that doesn’t know night from day,” Bruno told me. “I’ve survived 31 years. I don’t pretend to be a genius. I have common sense, a lot of intuition.”

Even though Spitzer was elected by 69 percent of voters, to drain the swamp he’d have to work with Silver and go through Bruno, daunting challenges for a new executive. As Silver put it, “How difficult it’s going to be to deal with the Senate will be the governor’s biggest surprise.” The looming question was whether the same hyperaggression that had been successful in the attorney general’s office would work in Albany, where he must appease complicated constituencies, while not having subpoena power.

When I first talked with the governor several months ago, he had no doubts as to his tactics. He relished the fight. Taunting, as he saw it, was a part of the game. I asked about the threat to kill the Republican majority. The governor has a habit of sitting perfectly still, like Lincoln on the National Mall. “There is some virtue in my saying to them, ‘Fellows, your hold is tenuous,’” Spitzer answered, and shot me one of his quick horizontal smiles.

Spitzer’s appetite for confrontation was nurtured early. Perhaps every dinner table is theater; Spitzer’s childhood table was, as one friend puts it, a “Darwinian” drama. Spitzer’s father, Bernard, now 83, presided over what another friend called “an ongoing argument that never stops. It was like intellectual professional wrestling, except it wasn’t staged.” Bernard is the brilliant immigrant (he graduated college at 18) who built a real-estate fortune worth an estimated $500 million, supervising every detail. One benefit of success was that the three bright Spitzer children didn’t have to waste their time in pursuit of financial gain. Instead, as one friend observed, they were to compete, achieve, and serve.

At dinner, Bernard and Anne, his wife of 63 years, discouraged small talk—“Dull and redundant,” Bernard tells me one day. “My dad didn’t want to get to dinner and gossip, though it probably would have been more fun,” Spitzer says. “My dad is not a frivolous person. I don’t think I’ve heard him have a conversation about the weather. He has always been a rigorous intellectual who pushes himself and others to think with clarity.”

Bernard sometimes assigned the kids to bring a topic to dinner and lead a discussion, one topic per dinner, no wandering—“a rotating obligation,” Bernard calls it, in a characteristically formal locution. Daniel, the middle child, the scientist, liked to discuss Antarctica and deserts—he became a neurosurgeon. Emily, the oldest, was the family feminist—she later worked as a lawyer for the National Organization for Women Legal Defense Fund. Eliot, the youngest, was a bookish teenager. He loved sports and was good at them, and also carried a large Samsonite briefcase around junior high; in his free time, he leafed through foreign-policy magazines.

Whatever the subject, explains Daniel, “you needed to have something thought out and with gravitas and preferably with a couple of statistics thrown in. You couldn’t fake it.”

Bernard saw his role as challenging whatever argument was advanced. “I tried to elicit the principle,” he says from his Fifth Avenue office. His motto was “Challenge the premise.” No one got a pass, including visitors. William Taylor, Eliot’s Princeton roommate who later co-founded the magazine Fast Company, says, “I was never more relieved than when dinner was over and I’d survived.”


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