IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Book looks back at Spitzer’s fall

Author Peter Elkind interviewed dozens of key sources, ranging from Eliot Spitzer's family and friends to central players in the prostitution ring that brought down the former governor of New York. Read an excerpt of his book, "Rough Justice."
/ Source: TODAY books

Author Peter Elkind interviewed dozens of key sources, ranging from Eliot Spitzer's family and friends to central players in the prostitution ring that brought down the former governor of New York. Read an excerpt of his book “Rough Justice,” which chronicles the politician's dramatic rise and fall. 

IntroductionIt was cold and barely daylight when Lloyd Constantine arrived at 985 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, a stone’s throw from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The media horde that would soon gather outside had not yet begun to arrive. Constantine, a regular visitor, stepped quickly into the lobby. The doorman, crisply dressed in his black uniform, waved him through into the elevator.

The urgent summons from his old friend had come the night before, in a shocking phone call. “I have to resign,” the fifty-fourth governor of New York had told him. “As early as tomorrow, it will be reported in The New York Times that I’ve been involved with prostitutes.”

“It’s late,” responded Constantine, a wealthy antitrust lawyer, after briefly hearing out his friend. “I will be at your apartment at 7 a.m. And I certainly won’t abandon you. It can’t be as bad as you think.” But, of course, it was.

Constantine had known the governor for a quarter century. He’d watched every step of his magical political rise: his breathtakingly narrow election as New York’s attorney general; his audacious, media-grabbing crusades against corporate corruption and greed; his ascent to the national stage as the moralizing “Sheriff of Wall Street,” America’s most feared enforcer; and his inevitable election as governor of the nation’s most important state in a record landslide — bigger even than those of Teddy Roosevelt, Al Smith, and FDR. All this had spurred giddy talk about his prospects for becoming the first Jewish president.

Constantine’s friend had arrived in Albany vowing to clean up New York’s notoriously corrupt and dysfunctional state government. He’d deliver a balanced budget on time, provide healthcare to the uninsured, bankroll needy school districts, breathe life into the moribund upstate economy — and do it all in the sunshine, out from behind closed doors, without favors or backroom deals. He’d spoken to friends of wanting to leave a historic legacy, to offer a national model for activist government in the post-Reagan age. “The light of a new day shines down on the Empire State once again,” he’d thundered, standing coatless — just like JFK! — in a drizzly chill during his inaugural address on New Year’s Day. His election promised “a new beginning,” an administration “as ethical and wise as all of New York.”

But nothing had gone as planned. During fourteen months in office, he’d stumbled from one crisis into another, often disasters of his own making. To Constantine, he’d seemed inexplicably ... different — distracted and unfocused, given to impulsive judgments and fits of rage.

Lesser adversaries — the pygmies of Albany — were bedeviling him. Now, Constantine concluded, he suddenly understood. His friend had been harboring a terrible secret: he had a toxic drip seeping into his brain. From the first day of his tenure, New York’s governor had known that he was doomed — a political dead man walking. The only question was when the end would come.

Constantine stepped off the elevator onto the eighth floor; 985 Fifth was an “elite rental” — a three-bedroom like apartment 8B, with lovely views of Central Park, went for more than $17,000 a month. Inside, Constantine was immediately greeted by the familiar profile of his old friend, plastered on so many magazine covers over the years — the lean frame, the big ears, the jutting jaw. Only now the predatory countenance was gone. He was the hunted, not the hunter. The governor’s wife of twenty years, Silda, stood near her husband, but there was a palpable chill between them. Both were in tears, looking shattered.

“Welcome to a Greek tragedy,” said Eliot Spitzer.

It was during 2008, the year Eliot Spitzer fell, that America began to learn the consequences of its madness. The venerable investment-banking houses of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers collapsed, buried beneath the weight of unregulated investments in high-risk mortgages. A fund manager named Bernie Madoff confessed to operating a $50 billion Ponzi scheme. AIG, the global insurance powerhouse, became a ward of the state. Merrill Lynch was auctioned off for a pittance. Citigroup struggled to survive. The nation spiraled into recession.

Sex scandals and elected officials

Slideshow  21 photos

Sex scandals and elected officials

A photographic retrospective of embarrassing episodes.

It was a hard time to be Eliot Spitzer. New York’s former governor stewed as he watched all this from the sidelines. He’d warned Washington about subprime debt. He’d prosecuted AIG for cooking its books. He’d taken scorching heat for a showcase lawsuit over grotesque executive pay. Most of all, he’d preached the perils of greed and hubris, and deregulation run amok. Despite all his early tribulations as governor, he would have been heralded as a Cassandra, and a major player in the national debate about how to fix the mess — perhaps even President Barack Obama’s choice for U.S. attorney general.

Instead, Spitzer was cooped in a converted conference room at his father’s Manhattan real estate office, nominally presiding over a family business empire that ran itself, reduced to wielding his political influence through a column for an online magazine. “I get up in the morning, make breakfast for the girls, put them on the bus, come to the office, read the papers, and I say to myself ten thousand times: ‘I should be doing something else.’” He spoke wistfully to me of the days when “issues were important, not my sex life.”

I began meeting with Spitzer in early June, less than three months after he’d resigned, while the possibility of criminal indictment still hung over him and he remained publicly silent. We spoke regularly over the next year and a half, mostly face-to-face. Spitzer is not, by nature, a reflective man. “I don’t believe in psychiatrists; I don’t do introspection,” he’d blurt during our early discussions, whenever a question sought self-analysis. But now he was left to contemplate his extraordinary fall, and the memories were searing. The creeping inevitability of exposure and political ruin. The excruciating Sunday afternoon confession to his wife and three teenaged daughters. Silda, devastated and teary, standing beside him before the entire world as he tersely acknowledged behavior that violated “any sense of right and wrong.” The crushed expressions of his young staff, who had attached their lives to his promise. And, of course, the open celebration of his enemies. The cheers on the wooden floor of the New York Stock Exchange. The angry billionaire who stared into a TV camera and proclaimed, “We all have our own private hells. I hope his private hell is hotter than anybody else’s.” How had this insanity come to pass?

Overnight, Spitzer had become a tabloid joke — the Luv Guv, Eliot Mess, Client No. 9, the papers called him. No humiliation was out of bounds — no detail about his “horny habits,” no comment about his marriage. “Silda, are you leaving him?” a columnist for one of the city’s tabloids had bayed, as the Spitzers rushed off from a final press briefing without taking questions. In print, that same scribe had berated New York’s first lady for not racing into divorce court, branding her “a doormat,” an “ass-coverer,” and an “enabler” for her husband, who deserved to “burn.”

In the days that followed, Constantine had been so concerned about Spitzer’s mental state that he arranged for close friends to take turns checking in on him, placing the former governor under an informal suicide watch. “I’ve known people who killed themselves,” says Constantine, “and I felt the concern was warranted.” Months later, Spitzer privately scoffed at the thought that he might take his own life. But he quietly acknowledged his pain. “However bad you think it might have been,” he said, “it’s been exponentially worse.”

In an age that treasures celebrity, there is a certain voyeuristic fascination in watching a famous man blow himself up. Eliot Spitzer’s self-immolation provided the quintessential morality play — indeed, the very sort that he’d served up during his years in public office. Spitzer was a white knight: an Ivy League–smart, Fifth Avenue–rich political reformer with a perfect family — a man who had wielded moral indignation like a broadsword. Why, Spitzer had even prosecuted escort services as attorney general — and promoted a law during his time as governor that stiffened criminal penalties for johns. Now he stood revealed as a hypocrite, a flawed crusader who harbored a secret life consorting with expensive prostitutes.

Spitzer’s rise was almost as improbable as his crash, and the tale of how he got there does much to explain how it ended. His political career had been nurtured in a privileged and emotionally fallow upbringing; launched with noble, almost naïve, intentions; and fueled by a potent mix of creativity, fierce intelligence, and bristling ambition. By midlife, Spitzer had become a superstar, reshaping entire industries and collecting billions in penalties and fines. He had gone after some of the most powerful people in America — and become one of them himself. Always, he’d flown close to the sun, daring the consequences, until they finally arrived. No politician who has soared so high has fallen so fast. No unraveling has dashed more high-minded hopes. No demise has inspired more celebration among well-connected enemies. Spitzer publicly acknowledged that he had been undone by his own weakness and “stupidity” — that he ultimately had no one else to blame. But he privately suspected that the investigation and exposure of his misdeeds had murkier origins — that he was the victim of a political “hit.” And on that front, there are indeed hints of intrigue.

Spitzer’s private and public paths had taken him into strange, treacherous terrain: lonely, intoxicating worlds of sex, power, and politics. He’d toppled an arrogant insurance mogul bent on revenge; done business with a sweaty Russian-born pimp who evangelized about spirituality and macrobiotic diets; become target practice for a dirty-trickster consultant, who cast himself as the Joker tormenting Spitzer’s Batman; and become intimate with a pampered Jersey girl who chose turning tricks over a life without Louis Vuitton. The intersection of their lives had powerful consequences for all involved.

At the core of the story, of course, is a marriage. Within moments of Spitzer’s public confession, the image of the stricken Silda literally standing by her man had lit up the blogosphere with debate about conjugal behavior in the twenty-first century. Eliot’s political demise was, in fact, not even Silda’s first marital nightmare — a painful (if far less public) shock had come twenty-five years earlier. Yet in the months after Spitzer’s fall, Silda had not only remained committed to her husband but had actually come to regard him as a felled crusader — a casualty of the powerful forces he had courageously taken on.

As the unfolding financial meltdown left him feeling strangely vindicated, Spitzer (especially in private) became increasingly unbound. He scoffed at those who complained about his prosecutorial “bullying” as New York’s attorney general. The loudest such complaints came from “little entities like Citibank, Merrill Lynch, and AIG,” he told me. “I will never apologize for how I’ve dealt with them. Look how they’ve destroyed our financial system! If anything, I was too soft!” Had he overstepped his bounds, in public turf battles with the Justice Department and the SEC? “When did they ever do anything without our kicking the shit out of them first?” Spitzer replied. “They were intellectually moribund. They didn’t know how to follow their nose to find out what was going on in corporate America.” New York’s state legislature, he declared, was full of people who were “fundamentally corrupt.” As for The New York Times, his bible since childhood: “I use it to wrap fish.”

On the subject of his involvement with prostitutes, Spitzer was considerably less plainspoken during these early conversations — insight on that would come later. Though Spitzer was loath to admit it — psychological problems were for the weak — he had been in counseling with Silda for months, seeking to save his marriage and understand his actions. How could he have done what he’d done, despite the certainty of discovery, despite the enormous stakes, despite the absolute knowledge that his enemies would be merciless if he stumbled? Spitzer had his speculations, but preferred retreating to the shibboleth that every man has his flaws.

“Rational people do irrational things,” he liked to say. The Spitzers took comfort in, of all people, the words of Oscar Wilde: “Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.”

Excerpted from "Rough Justice." Published by Portfolio. Copyright Peter Elkind 2010.