Sympathy For the Steamroller

Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

When it fired him from the latest incarnation of his ratings-strapped television show, CNN achieved something I didn’t think was ­possible: It made me feel bad for Eliot Spitzer.

Of course, New York hasn’t forgiven him for his gubernatorial transgressions (though if that’s what it took to eventually give us Andrew Cuomo, maybe we can budge a little). And it wasn’t pretty the way he steamrollered former co-host Kathleen Parker and graduated from the shared Parker Spitzer to his own In the Arena. But the shows, short-lived as they were, gave us the chance to put something between ourselves and 2008.

Our relationships with the people we vote for are by necessity romances, about which I subscribe to a theory: It’s impossible to be friends with your most recent ex. In order to feel comfortable around a person with whom you’ve shared a relationship, you need to put a new ­relationship between you and the old flame. This is why, for example, a groom’s last girlfriend is rarely invited to the wedding, but a childhood or college love might get to give a toast at the rehearsal dinner.

So it was with Spitzer in the two and a half years after he resigned from state office. We couldn’t imagine him as anything but our ex-­governor, because other than occasional sedate opinion columns, he hadn’t given us any other way to think about him. The shows gave us some space from his indiscretions. What’s more, TV Spitzer helped us remember what we liked about Governor Spitzer, before his ham-fistedness got in the way: He was tough and principled and used his relentless intellect like a weapon. He called his foes to the mat and made them answer for their offenses.

Some will view the show’s failure as proof that the public isn’t ready for a Spitzer return. But there are so many other factors to blame; launching an unpopular prime-time CNN show is like building a new flying machine that turns out not to fly—it’s no big surprise. It was hard to feel bad for him après Ashley­ Dupré, when he famously ran alone around the reservoir with no one but his dog to talk to. But now he’s a victim himself—of CNN’s boringly repetitive panel guests, of a weak lead-in in the form of John King, and of the anchor-ADD suffered by panicky CNN executive vice-president Ken Jautz.

People have talked about Spitzer running for mayor in 2013, something that right now seems like an extreme stretch. But whatever Spitzer does next will put us another step away from our ugly past relationship with him. That step will likely be another high-profile one; Spitzer seems to genuinely fear that if you stop looking at him, he’ll cease to exist. Eventually, if he goes through enough iterations, he might actually earn our trust back enough to get elected to office. After all, with relationships, it’s the most intense ones that stick out in your mind. And the people you shared them with, in the end, are the ones you feel like you know the best.

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Sympathy For the Steamroller