The Reconstruction of Eliot Spitzer: Notes From a Boomlet

Welcome back, Mr. ex-Governor.

This week the Steamroller has been on a roll, writing columns about the financial mess on Slate, appearing to talk about it on national TV and on the radio at WNYC, giving an interview to the Times and floated across a magazine cover as the best next Treasury secretary. That’s all in a week.

We had an inkling of this back to December, when we first learned he’d be writing a biweekly column for Slate about finance and politics, something that seemed to position him on the slow road to a comeback.

And then this last week, with AIG and American populist rage in the news, we saw a Spitzer boomlet. The crackdown artist has increased his metabolism on Slate, with not one, not two, but three columns published there in the last week.

There was an appearance on the Brian Lehrer show. “As you suggested, there was a period when as attorney general of New York I was pursuing issues that nobody else wanted to pursue,” said Mr. Spitzer to Mr. Lehrer, barely concealing his glee. “And we pursued AIG and Wall Street’s structural failures in a way that others shied away from because it was politically unpalatable for them to address those issues. Now it is the flavor of the month.”

We’ll say!

There was a quote in Joe Nocera’s Saturday Times business column where he was posed as a genius on AIG. On Sunday, there was an appearance on Fareed Zakaria GPS, a friendly forum where he also talked about those bonuses.

And then, there’s his byline, on the cover of Newsweek yesterday, floating over a stock photo of a torches-and-pitchforks crowd. Inside the magazine, there’s Mr Spitzer’s restrained, stoic piece, explaining that civil debate is the way out of the financial mess.

“What we need to restore to the Washington debate is logic, not anger; principles, not wrath,” he wrote in his Newsweek piece.

As of this morning, it is both the most emailed and most viewed story on their Web site.  

And then, finally, Katrina vanden Heuvel wrote for The Nation’s Web site yesterday that Mr. Spitzer would make a fine candidate to replace Tim Geithner.

“Spitzer took on Wall Street’s metastasizing corruption before the meltdown,” she wrote. “He defended consumers’ and taxpayers’ rights. He speaks with passion and clarity about what went wrong and what needs to be done to restore integrity to our system. He is chastened by personal scandal, yet untouched by complicity in Wall Street’s public scandals which have obliterated peoples’ savings and devastated our country. Spitzer for Treasury Secretary?”

Welcome to the Spitzer resurrection project of 2009. (Why, we didn’t even mention the Vogue spread that Silda Wall Spitzer got in March!)

“He’s really invigorated,” said David Plotz, his editor at Slate. Mr. Plotz said he is an easy edit. He’s fast, clear, insightful. And he’s especially aces on the AIG stuff.

“The column has worked out incredibly well, for us and for him,” he said. “These are subjects he knows intimately and that he was prescient when he was in public office. And he says what he thinks!”

“We reached out to Spitzer at mid-week as we were thinking of which voices might add value to the debate over populism,” said Jon Meacham, the editor of Newsweek.

And maybe this is exactly the job Mr. Spitzer wants. To serve as a Sunday-style talk show pundit. An attorney general without the subpoena power, or the political headaches.

But is there more to the Spitzer boomlet than meets the eye? His regular column appears in Slate, owned by the Washington Post Company. Newsweek? Also owned by the Washington Post Company. And by appearing on CNN with Fareed Zakaria, he got to speak to a Newsweek international editor.

When he made his biggest splash in public life after he resigned in disgrace in March 2008, it was in the editorial pages of (where else?) The Washington Post.  It was that column that prompted Slate Group editor Jacob Weisberg to get Mr. Spitzer under contract. That, along with the fact that former Slate publisher Cliff Sloan, one of Mr. Spitzer’s closest friends going back to their days at Harvard Law together, wanted Mr. Spitzer to return to public life as a writer, and doing it for Slate.

“It seemed to be a natural fit.,” said Mr. Sloan, who is now a partner at Skadden in their D.C. office. “It definitely is something I mentioned to [Eliot] and to Jacob. And they, along with David Plotz, had further discussions.”

Was that perhaps why we were noticing so much encouragement from Washington Post properties?

“I was involved with helping the initial introductions at Slate,” he said. “I haven’t been involved since then.”

“I have always admired him, and think his fall is a genuine tragedy,” said Mr. Meacham, explaining why he chose him to write an essay for their cover package. “We like having voices from the arena, and nobody spent as much time on these issues as he did as AG.”

We remember Mr. Spitzer was a hero in his AG days. But we also remember a first-year governorship that couldn’t seem to expand the platform from raiding the Wall Street raiders to running a state. Mr. Spitzer, like so many before him, thought that Albany must be reformable, if Wall Street could be reformed. He only had a year, but there wasn’t much there to prove him right. There was lots of disappointment before Ashley Dupre was a twinkle in the New York Post‘s eye.

So in a way it’s no wonder that Mr. Spitzer is in demand now; it’s back-to-square-one time, and Mr. Spitzer seems to be bringing all of his Sisyphean strength to bear on the project.

“There are different kinds of resurrections,” said Larry Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “This obviously is one that is based on his personal desire to reenter respectable society. And there’s a tradition in American life—not just in politics—that when people pay their penalty and suffer appropriately for their crimes and misdeeds, then they should be able to reenter respectable society.”

But: “That’s a giant leap away from ever again getting elected to public office or being appointed. His days in any type of public office are over. You don’t resign the New York governorship in disgrace and then get elected to something else.”

Well, Ms. vanden Heuvel seems to think that at least an appointment can be managed now!

Anyway there was no use speculating so we called Mr. Spitzer to find out what he’s really up to here.

He called us back late yesterday afternoon to say that he was on vacation with his kids; he said he doesn’t really want to do interviews right now. Presumably, that is, interviews on the topic of Eliot Spitzer. Finally he gave in, albeit briefly.

“At rare moments, I’ll do my best to add to the public conversation,” Mr. Spitzer said. “I’m a private citizen, which I’m fully enjoying.”

We’ll report back to you in short order. The Reconstruction of Eliot Spitzer: Notes From a Boomlet