Partial contrition isn’t working for Eliot Spitzer.
For two long, painful days earlier this week after news broke about the Joe Bruno mess, Spitzer was bombarding questions about why his communications director, secretary and other aides tried using the state police to gather information about a Republican rival. Then, after it was revealed that two of those top aides refused to speak with investigators from the attorney general’s office, the pursuit intensified.
(“Why,” New York Post Albany bureau chief Fred Dicker practically shouted at him during a press conference yesterday, “did you say you cooperated when your aides had not testified to the attorney general?”)
Now, the state ethics commission is opening up its own investigation into the whole mess. This body has subpoena power–unlike the attorney general’s office, which produced the damaging investigative report that blew the case open–but without being able to compel people like Dopp and Baum (and maybe even Spitzer himself) to testify.
The one good piece of news for the governor, who appoints three of the ethics commission’s five members and its chair, is that he’ll have an excuse, for a time, to avoid answering further questions about the issue, on the lawyerly grounds that it’s under ongoing investigation.
But putting off answering the questions, as the governor and his advisers are doubtless aware, does not constitute an exit strategy from this dark chapter of Spitzer's political career.
In a second press conference yesterday afternoon, the governor offered what sounded like an initial attempt to convince the press to start moving on, by offering a vague, partial admission of fault.
“One of the things I’ve learned is that not only are we all fallible,” he said, “but pretending you don’t make mistakes is the worst, most egregious error you can make. Of course we’ve all made mistakes, wish we would do some things differently along the path. And I’m not going to start delineating them for you here.”
“Why not?” asked a reporter.
“Because you already have enough to write about for tomorrow,” Mr. Spitzer said, attempting a laugh.
Later, the governor tried explaining that the “atmospheric” stories reporters were covering missed the point. He and the legislature–which he has stopped lambasting as corrupt, inefficient and pointless in recent days–have made historic changes in Medicaid spending, campaign finance reform, and other areas, he said.
“Sometimes I think you guys should realize we’re doing the rest of it just to distract you so we can actually get the job done,” he offered.
One thing the governor didn’t do was offer an unconditional apology and assumption of responsibility for acts that were indisputably (thanks to the attorney general's report) improper.
I asked Brooke Masters, the former Washington Post reporter and author of the Spitzer biography “Spoiling for a Fight,” whether Spitzer has it in him to make the sort of display of no-excuses contrition that might begin to take some of the air out of this story for the press, if not for his political enemies.
She thought not.
“He's not very good at that,” said Masters, who interviewed Spitzer more than a dozen times for her book. “The closest I heard him talk about it is, 'it was a noble failure' kind of thing.'We did the wrong thing but forces conspired against us.' He won't dump it on other people, but he'll sort of prevaricate –'we should have been more transparent.'”
The closest Spitzer ever came to outright penitence, she said, was when he belatedly explained that money for his 1994 and 1998 attorney general races were secured by his father, in violation of the state’s already generous campaign finance laws.
“I remember there was that famous quote ‘we should have been more transparent,’” she said, “but there is never an 'I screwed up.' I never heard him say that.”
With every passing day, the opportunity for Spitzer to admit his screw-up in the Bruno affair—and actually sound sincere—fades.