The Confessions of Eliot Spitzer

There is no success so exquisite as the kind you find in Manhattan and no disgrace so excruciating as the kind you find on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Residents of the rarefied blocks north of the Plaza Hotel and east of Central Park marvel at the smallness of their neighborhood, how each day they run into friends—strolling through the park, marching down the wide avenues, sitting in thewell-lit restaurants. This familiarity is a comfort to the neighborhood's better sorts, the knowledge that most anyone they know, most anyone who matters, might be about to round the corner. For pariahs, it is torture, a torture they have no choice but to endure. They can hole up in the country for the weekend … but the children must go to school. They can send the laundry out, they can order food in … but even the airiest apartments turn stuffy after a while. Eventually, they have to go out, onto the street.

Eliot Spitzer goes out to walk the dogs. For three days after resigning as governor of New York in March 2008, he stayed in his Upper East Side apartment, out of the cameras' view. In those early days of exile, his name was on the lips of most everyone in the city—the disgraced governor …

Silda's no-good husband … Client No. 9. Along Fifth Avenue, outside his apartment building, the photographers and press hounds formed a thick line. Watching from inside, Spitzer was amazed by the spectacle. He wondered, is there nothing else going on in the world?

But dogs have needs that transcend damage control. And so the first images of Eliot Spitzer, private citizen, were of a man in baggy sweatpants, trailing after his wheaten terrier, James. The photographers followed them. "I explained to James that he was a good-looking dog," Spitzer recalls. "People wanted to take his picture." He didn't know what he would encounter outside his door, but there was nothing he could do about it. "You put up barriers and sort of prepare yourself."

Spitzer kept walking the dog through the last bitter days of winter. The photographers lost interest. By summer he was an Upper East Side curiosity—Whatever happened to Eliot? I don't know, was a common answer, but I've seen him walking his dog.

A year later, he is still walking. Now he has a new companion. When he was a young politician with a tough-guy reputation, he preferred to walk only James and leave Jesse, the other family dog, at home. Jesse is a bichon frisé, the kind of dog that blue-haired women leave their fortunes to. "I wouldn't take her out in public," Spitzer recently explained. "I thought James was the better image for me." Now, most any weekend, he can be seen trailing after both animals. "It's like, OK, I have a bichon, a little white ball of fluff … I don't care. What do you have to lose?"

Here is Eliot Spitzer, one year out from a devastating scandal, trying to convince you he has nothing more to lose. Most of it, really, is already gone—the governorship, the entourage, the talk about becoming the first Jewish president of the United States. He still has his health and, to the surprise of many, his marriage. But if he were struck down tomorrow, he would be remembered first as the best-known client of a prostitution service called the Emperors Club, the man at the center of the most spectacular political sex scandal since Bill and Monica.

Spitzer knows this, knows that every time he hails a cab, runs in the park or takes the dogs out, people may be watching him—wondering why he did it, what's really going on inside his apartment and what's going on inside his head. And yet he professes not to worry about it. "The question isn't whether I want to control my public profile or not, because I know that I can't," he told me earlier this spring. "It's whether I want one at all."

The answer, clearly, is yes. Since December, he has written a weekly column on politics, economics and the law for Slate. (Slate and NEWSWEEK are owned by The Washington Post Company.) In the past month, he has done three TV interviews, opined about the financial crisis in several newspaper articles and written an essay for this magazine on the dangers of excessive populism.

But Spitzer swears this is not a concerted effort at rehabilitation. One of the lessons his political career taught him, he says, is that "there is an adrenaline that comes with … attention that is seductive and dangerous." In the first week of April, he predicted a lower profile for himself, saying, "I've written a few articles to try to capture some ideas and done two TV interviews to highlight a couple of points I think need to be made." That would probably be it for a while, he said. Less than a week later, he was on "Morning Joe."

It's easy to see why Spitzer is drawn to the limelight at this moment: in an "other than that, Mrs. Lincoln" way, he is a voice uniquely qualified to speak to the country's current concerns. In the boom years at the beginning of this decade, while politicians in both parties were cheering on Wall Street, Spitzer was a voice of caution. His reputation "metastasized" (his word) when he took on AIG four years before the insurance giant was universally acknowledged as the Death Star at the center of the financial collapse. More than that, in his campaigns, first for attorney general and then governor, Spitzer articulated a new kind of progressive politics; he envisioned an activist role for government that was market-friendly but not market-obsessed—an early preview of the emerging consensus of the Obama era. It's easy to look at the scope of the problems the country and New York state now face, and to watch the calamity that is Spitzer's successor, David Paterson, and wonder: his wife appears to have forgiven him; why can't we?

But as Spitzer well knows, it is never that simple. For American politicians, the road back from disgrace in a sex scandal is long and arduous. The early steps are straightforward: accept responsibility, express remorse and accept the consequences. For the extremely smart and the extremely lucky (e.g., Bill Clinton), this strategy alone can allow for political survival. Most of the time, it does not.

From there, things get more complicated. The public forgets but does not forgive. To have a chance at a future in politics, or at least being an elder statesman, he must perform a torturous penance: genuinely abandoning his oldest ambitions. Ted Kennedy put the ghost of Chappaquiddick to bed and became the lion of the Senate only when he was defeated in the 1980 presidential campaign and it was clear he would never restore Camelot to the White House. Gary Hart became a sage voice on national security and international affairs only after decades in the wilderness, writing novels and history books, and earning a doctorate from Oxford. Ultimately, we command a cruel punishment for our fallen leaders: they must become the antithesis of themselves—modest, chastened, resigned. We will consider building them back up again only when they are really, honestly, as low (or lower) than us.

How truly difficult this must be for Spitzer, who has always been better than everyone. "Over the course of my public life," he said in his resignation statement, "I have insisted, I believe correctly, that people, regardless of their position or power, take responsibility for their conduct. I can and will ask no less of myself." Spitzer the public servant, he seemed to suggest, was better than Spitzer the man. He was wrong, of course. Now, as he contemplates the road ahead, Spitzer's challenge is not just getting past being Client No. 9. He must do something even harder: walk away from a lifetime of training to be a political animal and learn to think and act like a normal man. As the story of his first year in exile indicates, this will take an extraordinary effort, more than Spitzer may realize even today.

Among the many odd traits of political animals is that while they tend to find themselves fascinating, they have little aptitude for, and less interest in, analyzing themselves. Spitzer is no exception. I asked him recently if he'd read any of the theories about why he was so reckless with Ashley Dupré. "No," he said, clearly not wanting to say anything more. I started to recite some of the most common ones—that with the chaos of his governorship, his illicit sex life was a last refuge he could control; that he had been reckless and risked punishment because a part of him felt a need to be punished for never measuring up.

His face flattened, as if in great pain. "One thing I'm very bad at is being publicly introspective … The human mind does, and permits people to do things that they rationally know are wrong, outrageous … We succumb to temptations that we know are wrong and foolish when we do it and then in hindsight we say, 'How could I have?' "

I asked if, when he hired a prostitute, he knew he was doing something wrong.

"Yes," he said. "No question about that."

Did he know what the risk was?


He was silent for a moment and then, without further prompting, offered an explanation: "I'm not going to say anything that … should be thought to be an excuse for anything. But there's got to be some element to its being a result of tension and release. And that builds up."

I asked if he'd seen a therapist in the past year.

He threw out a blizzard of words: "You talk to people. It's—people say, 'Look, you should just talk to somebody to help talk it out, figure it out.' You just try to sort it through."

So, yes, he had seen a therapist? "I've spoken to people and said, 'Well, what do you think?' "

Was this a politician's caution? Fear that, by admitting he'd turned to therapy, he would look weak? Spitzer's aversion seemed deeper. A politician was talking, but not the kind who cannot bear to see his image damaged. The kind who cannot bear to see himself. Several times in our conversation, Spitzer mentioned "the human mind" as though it were some mysterious affliction that can't be explained. "You think about a lot of things when you have time to reflect," he said. "You wake up every morning and say, 'I was elected to do something, and now I can't do it,' and 'What have I done to my wife and children?' You say lots of things. But they're not terribly fruitful avenues of conversation, because there's no answer. And that makes it more frustrating."

We were speaking that afternoon in the midtown Manhattan offices of Spitzer Enterprises, the family real-estate firm. On the 22nd floor of a family-owned building, the office affords an unobstructed view of the southeastern corner of Central Park. The sign outside the suite says OFFICES OF BERNARD SPITZER. There was no mention of Bernard's son Eliot, or the fact that this son was the former governor of New York. "Governor," I'd said to Spitzer as he greeted me in the reception area. He smiled and said, "I told you not to call me that."

Inside Spitzer's office there was no governor to be found. There was no glory wall, the elected official's standard assemblage of photos from moments of grandeur. Pictures on a side table highlighted the private Spitzer—smiling on ski vacations with his family, sharing a laugh with old friends. It felt like being in a movie about serendipity or time travel, as if a butterfly flapped its wings and suddenly the nation's most combative governor was transformed into a middle-aged real-estate man.

No one would have predicted this swift reordering of Spitzer's identity; politics had seemed to be his destiny. Every Spitzer profile mentions the dinner-table scene at his parents' home in the exclusive Riverdale section of the Bronx. There, Bernard, the immigrants' son who built a half-billion-dollar real-estate fortune, conducted intense seminars at the dinner table, grilling his three children, Eliot, Daniel and Emily. It was, as one Spitzer friend once told New York Magazine, "a Darwinian drama," where survival meant showing up with opinions, arguments and facts. "I understand how you can describe it as potentially scary," says Lawrence Golub, a Spitzer friend since childhood. "If somebody asked you to juggle knives, that would be scary. But if you had grown up in a family with Olympic-quality balance and hand-eye coordination … it would be like playing with rubber knives. The Spitzer family is so smart and so articulate, and they've been doing it for so long, I think it was like playing catch."

But it had a purpose. Young Eliot, who carried a Samsonite briefcase to junior high, was being groomed, not to juggle knives, nor even to build buildings, but to serve. Real estate was then, and remains, a family enterprise in New York, and it would have made sense that the Spitzer children might follow in Bernard's footsteps. But the elder Spitzer, in Eliot's telling, wanted something different for his children. "My dad's sense was that making more [money] is not really the measure of who you are," Spitzer says. "I don't think he ever felt guilty about it … But it's not as fundamentally as interesting or as useful an endeavor as somehow doing something that's meant to help people."

It did not always seem inevitable that helping people would mean running for office. Spitzer was not, and is not, a natural politician. He does not have Barack Obama's ability to look at a stranger and see him for who he is, nor Bill Clinton's ability to look at someone and see who he wants to be. On meeting the young lawyer Eliot Spitzer for the first time, new acquaintances could be charmed, yes, but also confused, insulted, outsmarted or challenged to a game of tennis. He had a passion for public policy, but plenty of other bright young men and women from Princeton and Harvard had that. What made Spitzer destined to run for office was his belief that he alone could stand at the center of great debates, fight and eventually win.

It drew him to the spotlight. When it came time to find a home for his family, he did not follow his parents' example and settle in Riverdale. Instead, the Spitzers made their family home in one of Bernard's rental buildings on Fifth Avenue. Here the Spitzers had one of the most exclusive addresses in town, thanks to the views of Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum, and also one of the most exposed, thanks to the crowds of tourists who swarm to those destinations each day. "Silda was always afraid of being too suburbanized," Spitzer says.

Her husband did his part to keep things interesting as well. In his nine years in public office, Spitzer became expert at using public attention as a means to achieve his ends. As attorney general, he brought major cases against AIG, Merrill Lynch and New York Stock Exchange chief Richard Grasso. He made himself the most well known state attorney general, probably in American history, by not hesitating to put his own personality at the very center of the story he told the public. He was a white knight always creating new monsters to slay, and he always found them: Grasso, AIG's Hank Greenberg and New York state Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno. For the world, Spitzer never flinched, but there was a cost. "You can't show publicly that you're hurt or angry," Spitzer says. "People don't want to see it. So you have to maintain that façade of … invulnerability." He says he never tried to make any of his battles personal. "In AIG, for instance, yes, I felt like it was David vs. Goliath, but I was David! I wasn't Goliath … I was fighting up the mountain and fighting institutions that ultimately had much more staying power than I did."

To Spitzer's foes, and even his friends, this will sound plainly ridiculous: Eliot Spitzer, the eternal underdog. But in light of what was to transpire, it seems telling that Spitzer so often felt imperiled. I asked him if, at the beginning of his political career, he and Silda had discussed the risks a life in politics would bring. "Yes," he said, "and I thought we could handle it, and we did for a while. And then I didn't. Silda had some latent sense that this was going to impose pressures that we had to be careful about. I didn't pay enough attention, obviously."

In the end, it didn't matter whether he was David or Goliath; Spitzer slew himself. How did he grapple with the fallout? In the earliest hours, there were countless things to do, urgent concerns. It is ghastly to imagine how horrible the first days of the scandal must have been for Spitzer's three daughters—their father the giant slayer, now their father the john. Spitzer proudly notes that "they didn't miss school." That meant they were the first members of the family to face the cameras on Fifth Avenue. "I just hoped beyond hope that they would be able to walk out the front door without the media being too obtrusive … I wanted to create a sense that, yeah, their dad had done something unforgivable, but we were still a family and we were going to make it through this."

Then, of course, there was Silda. One grotesque irony of political sex scandals is that in the beginning, when the pain and shock are greatest, husband and wife need each other more than ever, for each of them is under attack from the outside world. "When you're in the foxhole with somebody," Spitzer says, "and there are incoming mortars, that breeds a certain closeness because nobody else can appreciate what you're going through."

The hard work, though, came after the cameras went away. Everyone wants to know, I said to Spitzer, why did Silda stay with you? "I'd be surprised if everybody said that," he said. "Marriages are dynamic. There are ups, there are downs, and I am incredibly fortunate to have a wife who has suffered unbelievably from this and yet who is still forgiving … And for that I am eternally grateful."

In the first months after the scandal, Spitzer approached healing his family as his primary occupation. "He clearly cares very much about the effect on his family from all this," says Jason Brown, a lifelong friend. "Before all this we didn't have that much occasion to talk about how his family was doing ... Now a lot of his focus is on, what do I do to help my family here?" He owed it to his family to keep his head down. The pictures that emerged of the private Spitzer were few and far between: walking the dogs, driving his car, seeing his eldest daughter off to the prom. Just another nerdy dad with a BlackBerry strapped to his belt.

For the first time in a decade, he tried to be a private person. There was an upside: more free time meant more running in the park. He resumed his weekly tennis game. He cooked breakfast for his daughters. "When you're in office, it's harder to find time for friends," he says. "So then, suddenly, here you are, thrown back into normal life … There's almost a sense of guilt. Why wasn't I calling them for the last 10 years when I was viewed as being, you know, important, powerful, whatever?"

Still, the move away from public life was jarring. Alone in the apartment, he felt "a terrible sense of loss." He tried not to read the newspaper. He stayed away not just from stories about the scandal, but from the great hurly-burly of American political life. Reading too much about the world he'd left behind, he feared, "would not be a healthy endeavor." Usually, he ended up reading the news anyway. "I have to balance the fact that it may be difficult with the sort of magnetic urge my hands have toward the newspaper in the morning. Which is just hard to undo."

It was an awful time to give up an addiction to politics. That spring, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were in the throes of their marathon primary battle, and when he would go out with friends, the topic would inevitably turn to the presidential race. "One of the hardest things to accept is that we are replaceable," he says. "Intellectually, I think we all know it. But it's harder to accept it emotionally. And, to a certain extent, you feel like saying, 'But wait a minute, how can things be continued without me?' "

Early this year, Ed Koch, the former mayor of New York, sent Spitzer an e-mail. When Spitzer's scandal broke, Koch wondered on TV if the governor had a "screw loose." But in New York political circles, hard feelings soften. "I like him very much and I'm sorry that his career was interrupted by his inability to restrain himself," Koch says. The former mayor and the former governor agreed to lunch. Koch made a reservation at the midtown restaurant Trattoria Dell'Arte: "We had a secluded table; I didn't know if he was out and about." But the Spitzer he found waiting for him was in good spirits. "I thought he'd lost a little weight, which I told him," says Koch. "But he wasn't dour, he wasn't depressed … I tried to convey to him that his career is not over. I think he had come to that conclusion himself."

Spitzer had come out of hiding. In November federal prosecutors announced that they would not press charges. "I think I would have been the only person in the history of the federal government pursued for that," says Spitzer, "so it struck me as odd that it took that long. But so be it." Still, it was a relief; he was free to return to regular life. He was the hit of the Slate holiday party at the downtown lounge Happy Endings, debuting a new self-aware, self-deprecatory Spitzer. A Vanity Fair writer quoted him responding to a joke that Bernie Madoff, the alleged Ponzi schemer, was "worse for the Jews than anyone since David Berkowitz." Spitzer: "Well, I was New York's second Jewish governor. Look what I did."

By spring he was ubiquitous. On the first Wednesday after the anniversary, he was on NPR talking about the financial crisis. A day later, he taped a CNN interview with NEWSWEEK's Fareed Zakaria. The next day, he lunched at Michael's, the midtown restaurant, where the media "A-list" gathers to gawk at itself.

By this point, Spitzer had grown accustomed to the gaping. "It doesn't matter if it's at Fifth Avenue and 57th Street or in Salt Lake City," says his friend and former adviser Lloyd Constantine. "People recognize him. And it's a full range of emotions: I love you. I hate you. You're a son of a bitch. You're the best. He handles it with incredible grace and equanimity."

For most people, maybe even for most politicians, it would be unimaginably difficult knowing that every stranger you encounter knows the intimate details of your greatest shame. Spitzer says it doesn't bother him. "I think cabbies must be among the best-informed members of our society," he says. "They love to talk to me about every issue … A lot of them either don't want me to pay or want me to sign the bill that I pay with … Literally, twice in the last week they've gotten out with their cell phones … to take a picture. It's very nice and I don't read anything into it."

He has come to rely on the kindness of strangers: "They respect this notion of, yes, we all absorb the media and read the stories of other people's lives. But when we see them, we think, hey, there but for the grace of God go I. Show the guy some decency." As the weather grows nicer and the days longer, he sometimes meets Silda outside her office on Madison Avenue in the evening. They walk 20 blocks uptown together, toward home.

What's ahead remains a mystery. Spitzer's friends say, for now, he is happy with his role as a commentator, that he is tickled by his ability to have an impact on the debate. "I'm just writing a story that I think is pretty good," he said when I called him in his office one day. "I'm sure all writers think that." He has, in fact, carved a niche for himself—a Democrat who owes nothing to, and does not expect anything from, the Democratic establishment. He worries about populist overreaction on both sides of the political spectrum: "I think the whole thing about bonuses was faux populist. Scary. Really scary. I have no problem with people getting extraordinarily rich when they've taken real risk and been creative."

This outsider's view could give Spitzer a position of relevance—and maybe more. "I got two calls today saying, 'Are you running for governor?' It's like, what?" (For the record: no way, he says.) Spitzer is still a young man in a country with a short memory. While the 2010 governor's race is unimaginable, other races—say, New York City mayor in 2013—are not. When I asked him if his reemergence meant he could run again for office, he responded, "I don't know if I could, but I can tell you that is not what this is about." For those not skilled in politician-speak, note that he didn't say no.

If there's ambivalence there, it may spring from the knowledge that while Spitzer the commentator can count on the decency of strangers, Spitzer the politician will always have to answer for being Client No. 9. I asked Spitzer if he'd spent much time in the past year thinking about the fairness of it all, if Americans ought to care about their leaders' sex lives: "I could make a persuasive case that, no, it isn't fair. But … you should be smart enough to know that those are the rules, whether or not it's fair … There are other nations that have a very different set of parameters on these things. But you know when you get in public life here that you live in a fishbowl. So you've got to be smart enough to act accordingly."

The outlines of Spitzer the politician can be blurry. Clearly it was Spitzer the politician who told me that among the hardest stories for him to read are those attacking David Paterson because "he's made some tough decisions that are not appreciated." But when he told me that he loves to watch "American Idol" because "those kids are the future—they're smart, they're creative and they're … producing something," I wondered if I was talking to the unfiltered Eliot Spitzer, the nerdy dad.

But nerds lust for power, perhaps more than anyone else. I asked Spitzer if there were ever moments when he read about some problem in Albany and was glad he didn't have to deal with it. I assumed the answer would be yes. "No," he said. "I'd be kidding myself if I ever said that. No. I wish desperately that none of this had ever happened and I were there, able to do what I wanted to do. That is a burden that I just carry … I have no one to blame but myself."

On Easter Sunday, I met Spitzer in the lobby of his apartment building. The day was clear, if unseasonably cold, and we'd made a plan to go running. "Let's do afternoon," he said when I called that morning to confirm. "This is the one day of the year when Silda goes to services. I think we might do brunch as a family when she gets back." He emerged from the elevator in a gray Adirondack sweatshirt and old sweatpants with big pockets. He was dressed just as he'd been on those dog walks, but he looked older and balder and, yes, like he really didn't care.

Spitzer runs regularly, but this would be a different kind of exertion. I am two decades his junior, as he was quick to point out. He normally runs by himself; today he would have to talk while running, and to a reporter, no less. Normally, he assured me, as we made our way along the eastern edge of the reservoir, he is faster, but he'd been sore ever since a recent skiing trip to Vail. Skiing and tennis, he said, were the sports in which he was gifted; he had "big, clunky legs" and had become a strong runner only through sheer hard work.

When we'd made it almost around the reservoir, Spitzer had to stop to catch his breath. The park was packed with runners and strollers, several of whom recognized him. Today, though, it was Spitzer who called out somebody's name. "Matt," he yelled to an older gentleman, out for a walk with his wife. It was Matthew Nimetz, a private-equity investor and former undersecretary of state. He is, Spitzer would later tell me, among the smartest people he knows, someone who "should have been secretary of state." He was also an early mentor to Spitzer at the law firm Paul, Weiss. They clearly hadn't seen each other in a long time. "It's good to see you, Eliot," Nimetz said, "good to see you out running." "Yes, I'm running," Spitzer said. "I know what I'm running from. What am I turning toward, that's the bigger problem."

We wished Nimetz and his wife farewell and jogged out through the Engineers' Gate. "Hey, Spitz," said a man waiting to cross Fifth Avenue, "I'm with you." Spitzer made eye contact with him. "You're with me? Then I'm with you." We jogged down to Madison Avenue and stopped to buy a cup of coffee.

We walked down Madison, coffee in hand. Spitzer was more relaxed than I'd ever seen him; the conversation jumped easily the way it does on pretty Sundays in New York—from mutual acquaintances, to Spitzer's eldest daughter (home for the weekend from Harvard), to people like Matt Nimetz who remember everything. "Do you have a mind like that?" I asked Spitzer. He smiled. "I remember what I want to remember."

By now we were standing in front of his apartment building. The cameras and reporters were long gone. Their likes had been seen on the Upper East Side again, of course, plenty of times in the past year—outside the apartment of Stan O'Neal, the dispatched Merrill Lynch CEO, on Park Avenue, or Bernie Madoff's building, over on Lexington. They will come again, surely, to some other building, there but for the grace of God. But in front of the Spitzers' building, it was only the tourists, spilling in and out of the park. As we talked, Spitzer grew distracted. In front of the building stood a large, bronze, modern statue. A pair of passersby had stopped to take its photograph. "People always take pictures of that statue," Spitzer said. "It's amazing." He looked at the statue with real wonder, and maybe just a little jealousy. Soon, the picture snappers passed, unaware of the fallen idol a few feet away. We talked for a while longer until we said our goodbyes. Spitzer turned and disappeared into the lobby, for just that moment a normal man.