Around 11 a.m. on the morning of Tuesday, June 15, CNN staffers convened in the newsroom on the fourth floor of the Time Warner Center to listen to the company’s U.S. chief, Jonathan Klein, talk about the state of the network. One month had passed since Campbell Brown had resigned from CNN, stoically admitting along the way that her once rock-steady career had been no match for the treacherous shores of CNN’s 8 p.m. hour. “The simple fact is that not enough people want to watch my program,” Ms. Campbell wrote in her resignation letter, “and I owe it to myself and to CNN to get out of the way so that CNN can try something else.”
But, for God’s sake, what?
In recent years, the question of what CNN could do to win back the 8 p.m. time slot has seemed like a question that would bedevil Time Warner executives for the rest of eternity. Now, rumors were swirling. Earlier that morning, the New York Post had reported that Mr. Klein was close to finalizing a deal with Eliot Spitzer which would make the former governor one-half of a left-right pundit duet, in a show similar to Crossfire, which Mr. Klein had canceled some five years earlier.
According to multiple sources who attended the meeting, Mr. Klein said that no decision had been made; that he had considered a broad range of options for 8 p.m. His list of potential candidates, he told the staff, had consisted of 100 names.
Not so long ago, a TV news executive looking for talent to anchor a new show would more or less be limited to the narrow field of accomplished hard-news journalists. These days, the cable news landscape is a diverse ecosystem of various hardy survivors. Former politicians, talk-radio jockeys, prosecutors, activists, shock jocks and sportscasters now run roughshod through the territory, threatening to trample any mild-mannered reporter who happens into the fray.
Enter the Steamroller.
Of Mr. Klein’s list, Mr. Spitzer remains the front runner. How did the Harvard Law School graduate-turned-crusading New York Attorney General-turned-middling New York governor-turned-Client No. 9-turned-disgraced tabloid punching bag-turned real estate family man-turned Slate columnist suddenly amount to a viable cable news candidate?
The truth is, a solid foundation in scandal has come to be a perfectly respectable starting point for any small-screen aspirant hoping to break through in an age of hundreds of channels and on-demand everything. Whatever else his qualifications, Mr. Spitzer has proven in recent times to have a knack for one of the more prized skills in cable news-namely, polarizing audiences.
Call it Spitz-o-phrenia.
“He’s a Rorschach test,” Peter Elkind, the author of Rough Justice: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, recently told The Observer. “People hate him and they sort of bite their lip about how he screwed up. And people admire and like what he did as attorney general.”
On the other hand …
“My perception is, he would be great on television as a magnet for viewers because he’s so smart and he’s such a great lawyer,” said Lanny Davis, a television pundit (who frequently appears on CNN) and former special counsel to President Clinton, who calls himself an old friend and supporter of Mr. Spitzer’s.
“I was actually asked this question by a fellow who was thinking of hiring him and I said, ‘Forget about his political career, he’s going to have good ratings because people are going to watch and be fascinated by him,’” Mr. Davis added. “Because this is about someone who’s willing to bounce back. It’s part of an American narrative that goes all the way back in history. We love Horatio Alger. We love forgiving.”
Others recoil at the mere presence of Mr. Spitzer’s mug on TV. Recently, The New Yorker’s television critic Nancy Franklin watched Mr. Spitzer filling in for Dylan Ratigan on MSNBC. “I was practically blown out through the back of my couch, I was so repelled by the sight of him,” Ms. Franklin said. “I found him unpleasant to listen to and to look at. … I don’t think anybody really wants to watch him. They’ll tune in one or two times to see him. But he’s very loud. He’s very arrogant. He’s very smart. But he’s not really right for television.”
Her objections, she explained, were on practical and moral grounds. If CNN hired Mr. Spitzer, she felt it would be an extremely cynical move. “He’s sort of one of these high-energy dead souls who populate television now,” she said. “CNN would be rubbing it in our faces, frankly, if they hired him.”
And yet …
“Eliot still has a tremendous amount to offer,” argued Jimmy Siegel, who created the television advertisements for Mr. Spitzer’s ’06 campaign and has talked to the former governor about his TV prospects. “He’s still the brightest guy I ever met and knows more than anybody I ever met.”
THE IDEA OF Spitzer-as-commentator is a curious one for CNN, a channel that built itself on substance but now finds itself chasing ratings. The disgraced former governor is the rare package potentially offering both. It’s not because he’s telegenic and smooth like George Stephanopoulos, though!
“At the beginning, I thought it was ridiculous that anybody would even consider him for television,” said CNN co-founder Reese Schonfeld. “I think his television persona is among the worst I’ve ever seen. His great strength was that he’s a dictator. That’s not something that really works for an 8 o’clock news show.”
What about daytime? During the summer of 2009, Dylan Ratigan was getting ready to launch a new show on MSNBC, called Morning Meeting. As the former CNBC anchor surveyed the cable news landscape looking for ideas to help his show break through, he got to thinking about Eliot Spitzer.
Mr. Ratigan felt that Mr. Spitzer was one of the most knowledgeable people in the world on what Mr. Ratigan describes as “the obvious massive theft and cover-up being perpetrated against the American people by the banking system in collaboration with our government.”
Mr. Ratigan also knew that in the wake of the scandal, Mr. Spitzer had plenty of time on his hands. He thought of it in a Moneyball framework: Here was a player currently undervalued by the market. And so, in a burst of sabermetrics cable-talent evaluation, Mr. Ratigan reached out to Mr. Spitzer.
“He was a little bit cautious with me,” said Mr. Ratigan. “He said, ‘You know, you have to understand, I come with a lot of baggage.’”
But Mr. Ratigan forged ahead. “I believe the problems that our country face right now are much bigger than any one man’s particular scandals or dalliances,” he said. “I believe that the stakes are too high to let them affect my decision making in this.”
And so Mr. Ratigan joined Jacob Weisberg, the Slate Group editor, and Jon Meacham, the editor of Newsweek, in helping Mr. Spitzer build up his post-scandal media career. Mr. Ratigan ended up making Mr. Spitzer the first guest on his first show. Later, Mr. Spitzer began serving as the substitute anchor, filling in for the entire week following Memorial Day.
The ratings were so-so. For the week, according to Nielsen numbers passed along by MSNBC, Mr. Spitzer averaged 312,000 total viewers and 82,000 in the 25-54 demographic-a drop from the week before, when Mr. Ratigan’s show averaged 352,000 viewers and 105,000 in the demographic.
One of the week’s only YouTube-worthy segments featured Salon columnist Glenn Greenwald, who appeared on June 1 via satellite, arguing with Mr. Spitzer about the Gaza flotilla.”What you’re describing is absolute anarchy,” Mr. Greenwald harangued. “That any country can say, ‘No ships can go here, and if you disobey our order, we’re going to attack you, board your ship forcefully and kill anyone who doesn’t resist-’”
Mr. Spitzer tried to squeeze in.
“W-w-w-well, let me interrupt-”
“Let me finish,” Mr. Greenwald shot back. “Because you just had on 10 minutes of uninterrupted pro-Israeli propaganda filled with falsehoods.”
The Steamroller smirked softly and bit his tongue.
“One of the things that struck me in that segment was just how passive he was. It wasn’t very confrontational,” Mr. Greenwald told The Observer later. “I mean, I was saying some pretty harsh things about him and his ideas. I right away accused him of, you know, having nothing but false Israeli propaganda on, and he was very like calm about it. Very out of character. And I thought that that’s because he’s kind of trying out, and he obviously wants to be a host. And I think he’s trying to be less bombastic-and more like a television host.”
Mr. Greenwald-who fiercely defended the governor during his scandal-was disappointed. “If he’s going to be the old Eliot Spitzer, I think that’s a welcome voice,” he said. “He really was one of the few American politicians who genuinely stood up to Wall Street. And if he’s going to do that on the air, then I do think he’s going to be a unique voice. But if he’s just going to blend into the landscape, then I’m indifferent.”
FOR A MAN so desperately trying to re-enter public life-and there is little doubt Mr. Spitzer is, at the very least, very interested in running again-the ratings game presents a conundrum: Which needle to move?
“In order for him to be successful, he has to be exciting and entertaining,” said longtime Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf, who ran Mr. Spitzer’s television advertising in 1994 and 1998, but no longer speaks to him. “If he is exciting and entertaining, he will appear idiotic as a politician who is serious and of consequence. Therefore, if he’s a successful television broadcaster, the probability of him being a serious person in public life again declines precipitously. That’s the danger he faces.”
And yet, for a man of Mr. Spitzer’s urgency, there seems an equal danger in doing nothing.
“By this time, it does seem like he needs to do something to revamp his image, because right now it’s just immediately connected to the scandal,” said Leonie Huddy, a political psychology professor at SUNY Stony Brook. “Negative information is always more powerful than positive information. One little bit of negative information can often tip someone to think badly, whereas it takes a lot more positive information to boost someone’s standing or image.”
To wit: In April-despite the regular offerings in his Slate column and a slew of sporadic appearances as an analyst-a Marist Poll said nearly 60 percent of New Yorkers do not want Mr. Spitzer to run again anytime soon. That is slightly better than the roughly 70 percent from the previous fall-but still not good for someone eyeing elected office.
“That will change the minute he declares,” said Mr. Davis, who, in addition to counseling Mr. Clinton, has written a book on political scandals. “That’s a vote on the incident. Once he starts to run for office and it’s him against another mortal with human weaknesses and he’s talking about issues-and he speaks, and he’s so credible on issues-that 60 percent drops down to 40 percent and he wins by a landslide. If he’s judged in a vacuum, the only thing people are judging is the incident, and sure, he won’t show positive.”
But even in that rosiest of rosy comeback scenarios, something has to fill the post-scandal void.
“It’s a very different situation, but television worked for him after his first race,” pointed out his biographer, Mr. Elkind.
In 1994, after spending nearly $4 million for 18.5 percent of the primary vote-good for fourth, out of four candidates-Mr. Spitzer accosted the airwaves. He did Geraldo. He did Hannity and Colmes. He did CourtTV. In 1998, by his biographer’s count, Mr. Spitzer made 10 television appearances in a single week, to talk about-of all things-the Monica Lewinsky scandal. That year, he won a narrow, surprise victory over the incumbent attorney general, Dennis Vacco, who four years earlier had beaten the Democrat who had topped Mr. Spitzer.
“I think he sees this playing to a lot of his strengths: that he’s smart, that he generally knows issues very well, that he’s comfortable with debate, dating back to the Spitzer family dinner table,” Mr. Elkind said. “And he gets a chance to talk about things other than his involvement with prostitutes in the media. And if he’s in front of them, what he has to say, what he has to offer, how he looks-it changes the conversation, it changes the image, it changes the thinking of him back from being Client 9, back to being Eliot Spitzer. And he wants to be Eliot Spitzer again.”
In the end, the potential hookup between CNN, America’s former top cable news network, and Eliot Spitzer, New York’s former top politician, may be less a meeting of passion and more a potential arrangement of necessity between two institutions seeking a hasty resurrection.
“It could be that they’re realizing that their model is failing,” Mr. Greenwald speculated of CNN. “But if they do stick with their current model, I think they’re going to want to sandpaper around those rough edges. And that’s what I’m saying when I watched him hosting that show; I felt like he was making a concerted effort to do that. If they hire Eliot Spitzer and then just try to turn him into Brian Williams or Matt Lauer, then what’s the point?”
By mere dint of CNN floating the test balloon, Mr. Spitzer seems destined for a prominent spot in the cable news firmament sooner rather than later. And when this happens, you can bet you’ll hear that familiar frequency of howls of anger alternating with hums of admiration-sometimes from unexpected corners.
“I think Spitzer is incredibly smart, he was a brave and devoted public servant, and I think we are lucky to have his contribution in any arena he chooses to engage,” feminist and occasional Democratic consultant Naomi Wolf cooed to The Observer via email. “I do hope, though, that he won’t enjoy TV too much to return to public life, where we really need him.”