When Eliot Spitzer stood before the stunned press corps on Monday to make a brief apology for his misconduct, he spoke of “real change,” of trying to “uphold a vision of progressive politics that would rebuild New York and create opportunity for all,” of “ideas and the public good.” If the governor actually believes in any of those things, he will be the former governor by the time these words appear in print (or as soon as he can exchange his resignation for a favorable plea bargain, whichever comes first).
It is painful to watch the fall of Mr. Spitzer because the potential he represented was once so inspiring. Blessed with a privileged upbringing, he seemed to feel a duty to serve. Armed with the confidence of the elite achiever, he dared to challenge the powerful, including major business interests and right-wing ideologues, in defense of the public interest. Lionized by voters who sent him to Albany with a mandate, he invited comparison with great New Yorkers who changed the nation during the past century, such as Louis D. Brandeis and the Roosevelts, Theodore and Franklin.
Now all that is gone, with nothing left but gossip.
As Mr. Spitzer himself surely understands, this humiliating matter has little to do with prostitution as a social and political issue, or whether consenting relationships between adults should be criminalized.
For now, the oldest profession is illegal in New York State and in the District of Columbia, where he evidently committed his offenses. Even if he escapes indictment, like most “johns,” he has forfeited the confidence of the public, destroyed his upright reputation and ruined his opportunity to govern. This betrayal was not a victimless crime.
The circumstances of the investigation that led to Mr. Spitzer’s exposure are also irrelevant to his fate, although how he came to the attention of federal prosecutors is a question that should be answered more fully.
The Justice Department’s record under the Bush regime inevitably raises suspicions now, whenever federal prosecutors investigate a Democratic official, because the White House has so badly abused the law for political purposes. Don Siegelman, a former Democratic governor in Alabama, was sent to prison on transparently inflated charges, using flawed evidence, at the behest of Republicans in Birmingham and Washington. Partisan minions in the Justice Department fired a posse of United States attorneys precisely because they rejected that brand of political abuse.
Unfortunately it is not difficult to imagine that same Justice Department targeting the New York governor, a rising Democrat with an unlimited future, who had antagonized Republican officeholders and donors. Press accounts of how the Spitzer investigation began are not entirely satisfactory, either. The amounts of money he transferred do not seem to meet the threshold for “structuring,” which is jargon for cash transfers designed to evade taxation and other laws.
By this point, every public integrity indictment brought by the Bush Justice Department demands to be investigated itself. But the Spitzer and Siegelman cases are different in a crucial respect. The latter insists plausibly that he is an innocent man who was railroaded by political enemies. The former admits that he violated the law and the public trust.
The hard truth about Mr. Spitzer is that he began to squander his potential long before this final episode in his career. Rather than surprise his critics by tempering the volcanic temper and bullying style that seemed to be his worst traits, he amplified those flaws as governor. Instead of arguing for progressive reform against those who sought to frustrate him, he and his aides looked for devious ways to undermine his opponents, which backfired on them.
He spent most of the first year of his term digging himself into a deep hole, failing to achieve his goals and falling in the polls. But nobody observing his public conduct could see that in his secret life, he had already buried his brilliant career and fine aspirations.
The political forces celebrating that burial—from the Republican leadership in Albany and Washington to the private dining rooms of Wall Street—are not so concerned with public probity or personal morality. The validity of the agenda that Mr. Spitzer articulated so ardently and persuasively is not diminished by his personal failure. He symbolized a New York tradition emphasizing the values of fairness and opportunity, and of effective government that stood up for the people against predators and malefactors. We may hope that his successor will have the courage to retrieve that fallen standard.