The Fall of Eliot Spitzer

If you are going to be self-righteous, you had better be righteous. Eliot Spitzer got it only half-right, and as a result, no friends have rallied around him, no supporters have tried to stir up public sympathy. He will leave Albany a failure. What’s more, he will leave after having used his office as a bargaining chip with prosecutors, instead of quitting right away, as honor and ethics and proper respect for the citizens of New York would have dictated.

Mr. Spitzer may soon learn what it is like to have the full force of the government arrayed against him, just as he deployed his enormous resources as attorney general against Wall Street and, yes, against a prostitution ring in 2004. He is, of course, not yet charged with a crime, but if it comes to that, he can expect little in the way of “presumed innocent.” Not after the way in which he conducted himself as a prosecutor.

In the immediate wake of the shocking allegations against Mr. Spitzer, it has been common to speak of the unfulfilled promises of his short administration. He won an enormous victory in 2006 after eight highly visible years as the state’s attorney general. After garnering worldwide publicity in his crusade against Wall Street, to many people he seemed like the right man to fix what ails Albany.

Except, of course, that governors must govern, and in order to govern, one must not regard state lawmakers as perps. Mr. Spitzer spent inordinate amounts of time and resources in a fruitless quest to dishonor the Senate’s majority leader, Joseph Bruno. Key Spitzer staff members acted as though they were planning covert operations rather than managing the huge and crucial business that is the State of New York.

The result was predictable: Mr. Spitzer’s first year as governor was an unmitigated disaster, the worst rookie season of any new governor since William Sulzer, who managed to get impeached and removed from office in 1913 after only 10 months in office. Yes, state legislators can be crude and corrupt. But only a fool—or a hypocrite—treats them as moral inferiors.

So what, precisely, were the hopes that have now been dashed? What were the great expectations that Mr. Spitzer is said to have inspired? Who, in the end, believed that Mr. Spitzer would contend with and defeat the forces of darkness in Albany?

Eliot Spitzer was elected governor for the same reason he was elected attorney general. Not because voters considered him their advocate, but because he had tons of family money to spend on his campaign. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Michael Bloomberg and Jon Corzine have dipped into their personal fortunes to fund their campaigns, and it would be hard to argue that their money didn’t make a significant difference. But they also have proven to be competent, hard-working leaders who understood that their colleagues are their colleagues, not their enemies. It’s a lesson Mr. Spitzer never learned.

Mr. Spitzer’s fall is a personal tragedy, especially for his wife and children. Regardless of how one feels about his personal style and leadership, it’s impossible not to sympathize with his family.

But it is equally hard to sympathize with Mr. Spitzer. He got himself into this mess. He himself would have been eager not just to condemn but to loudly and brutishly prosecute such behavior. The shady way he is reported to have paid for his escort suggests that his ringing denunciation of Wall Street’s depredations was just so much rhetoric.

History shows that landslides bring out the worst in many public officials. Would Mr. Spitzer have governed differently, and acted differently, if his margin of victory was a percentage point or two, rather than 60 points? Given the flagrant arrogance and reckless behavior that are coming to light, and are now being welded to his name and legacy, it’s doubtful.

We hope our elected officials in Albany act with speed and wisdom to make sure New York moves forward, and that Eliot Spitzer does not become an obstacle to this great state’s progress.

The Fall of Eliot Spitzer