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The Governor and the Darkness

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By Rodrigo Corral, left, and Chip Kidd, right.   

How well did Eliot Spitzer know himself? When Spitzer announced his run for governor, he realized he had to soften his prosecutorial image a bit. So in November 2005, Spitzer was one of the first guests on The Colbert Report. When the talk turned to Spitzer’s childhood soccer career, he tried a joke. He told Colbert he wasn’t very talented as an athlete, but he was useful as an “enforcer.” “You play hard, you play rough,” Spitzer said, “and hopefully you don’t get caught.”

It was an attitude he learned early on, around the dinner table. His ferocious, demanding father, Bernard, was a self-made real-estate mogul. Nightly conversation was a competitive, often brutal debate over current events. One night, according to Brooke Masters’s biography of Spitzer, during a game of Monopoly, Bernard ordered Eliot, then 7 or 8, to sell him a piece of property, then reduced his son to tears when Eliot couldn’t pay the rent. The lesson he was teaching? “Never defer to authority,” Bernard said. Bernard wanted to be Joe Kennedy; what could he have thought last week?

Spitzer was determined to live up to his father’s expectations, and to exceed them—but he could never shake completely free of his dependence on his father’s help in achieving his goals. Spitzer bankrolled his successful 1998 run for attorney general with a $5 million loan from his father, lying about the source of the money until the week before the election. The fact that it didn’t stop Spitzer from winning seems to have reinforced the belief that standard moral and ethical boundaries didn’t always apply to him.

“I don’t think it was so much about the sex,” says one man who worked closely with Spitzer for many years. “Eliot loves covert ops. He always has.”

As attorney general, Spitzer’s favorite tactic was to use shame and publicity as weapons against publicly traded companies, and for eight years, it was hugely effective—though Spitzer ran roughshod over more than a few innocent parties. His act, however, played poorly in Albany. “Richard Nixon once said it’s helpful when your opponents think you’re crazy,” Westchester assemblyman Richard Brodsky said last year. “Eliot can’t help himself, but then he rationalizes it as a tactic. What you learn is not that he’ll attack people who are with him—it’s that he’ll lie about people if it suits his purpose.”

But if Spitzer’s diatribes against legislators made him look out of control, it was his taste for the sneaky that truly undermined his first year in office. One of Spitzer’s most loyal lieutenants, then-communications director Darren Dopp, became entangled in Choppergate—the Spitzer administration’s alleged use of the state police to assemble travel records that purported to show Bruno using a state helicopter for personal business, then handing the documents to the Albany Times Union. Losing Dopp cost Spitzer an important layer of political insulation and ballast; the former aide is now facing possible perjury charges. And the Choppergate episode, besides making Spitzer look petty, ended all hope of legislative compromise with Bruno.

As Spitzer’s poll numbers plummeted, Silda Wall Spitzer asserted herself. Her husband’s disastrous first year in office confirmed all of her misgivings about political life. But she loved him too much to simply let Spitzer continue to flounder, and she believed deeply in the rightness of his cause. So Silda joined forces with Constantine to reshape her husband’s strategy. Late last year, they tried to force out Spitzer’s longtime chief of staff, Rich Baum, and pressed Spitzer to sever ties with Ryan Toohey, the political strategist running the Democratic effort to seize control of the State Senate. Constantine and Silda saw Baum and Toohey as the prime agents of Spitzer’s confrontational approach, and they wanted them booted as a signal that the governor had learned his lesson. Spitzer didn’t cut loose Baum or Toohey, but he did enlarge the roles of Constantine and his wife—a dynamic that guaranteed even more friction.

Typically, Spitzer’s courtship of Silda Wall was a challenge to be faced. They’d met in 1984, in their third year at Harvard Law School. He’d asked her out on a date; she’d turned him down. Then he spotted her with an armful of flowers on Valentine’s Day. The sight of Silda with that big bouquet made Spitzer determined to try again. This time she said yes, and three years later they were married. She put her own successful career as a New York corporate lawyer on hold indefinitely when Eliot decided, in 1994, to run for attorney general. She didn’t like the idea of becoming a political wife, but she didn’t stand in his way.

Indeed, Silda worked hard at becoming Spitzer’s political partner, and in the past few months, with her help, his political life finally seemed to be stabilizing. Spitzer had mostly softened the tone of his public pronouncements, and while the Choppergate investigation continued to churn in the background, the political momentum was shifting in his favor. On February 26, the Democrats won another seat in the State Senate, putting the party and Spitzer within one seat of taking control of the Legislature. A handful of victories in this November’s legislative races and Spitzer would finally vanquish Joe Bruno.


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