His Dark Journey

He was contrite, but he still managed to sound self-righteous. "Over the course of my public life, 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," said Eliot Spitzer, resigning as governor of New York last week after getting caught patronizing prostitutes. His wife, Silda, stood by his side, looking ravaged but dignified.

Spitzer had shown more self-awareness a month earlier when an old, though not especially close, friend asked him if he liked being governor. "I hate it," he answered. "Really?" the friend asked. "Yeah, I'd rather be a high-school teacher." Maybe he was being arch or wry, but his tone was more matter of fact than facetious, says the friend, who did not wish to be identified discussing a private conversation. Spitzer's close friends say that he can be self-effacing and blunt about himself and everyone else—indeed, too blunt to be a successful politician.

But to most of the outside world, he was arrogant. The Wall Street Journal had dubbed him "Lord High Executioner" after he had seemed to take a kind of vindictive glee in prosecuting the rich. On the New York Stock Exchange floor last week, there were scattered cheers when people heard the news of Spitzer's fall. At at least one investment bank, reportedly, champagne corks popped. Some Spitzer watchers speculated that he had thought he was above the law, an untouchable. More likely, say the amateur psychologists, he wanted, at some level, to get caught. After 9/11, the banking laws were changed to increase scrutiny on anyone who might be secretly moving money around. Spitzer must have known that: as the hard-charging attorney general of New York, he had been one of the politicians who pushed to have the laws toughened. There is some evidence that he thought he could outsmart the computers, but he failed. In any case, what could he have been thinking when he met with prostitutes at places like the old Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C.? High-priced call-girl services are supposed to protect privacy, but with Spitzer's well-known, jut-jawed face, he was taking a mad risk.

Spitzer is hardly the first moralizer to consort with call girls or get caught at adultery. Throughout the years, cheating televangelists have tearfully confessed their sins. In the 1960s, the FBI secretly taped Martin Luther King Jr. in flagrante with women-not-his-wife. In the late 19th century, British Prime Minister William Gladstone, a great and noble reformer, walked the night streets of London, saving prostitutes for Christianity. (He reported succeeding in about one of 90 cases; it was never clear whether Gladstone was doing more than preach to the women, but he admitted in his diary to moral qualms and "self-flagellation" after his nocturnal activities.) Spitzer's self-destructive indiscretion caught his closest friends by surprise. Bill Clinton's inner circle knew that the former president was a womanizer, and tried to protect him from himself. Spitzer's friends had no inkling, says one who declined to be identified talking about him. His marriage, says this friend, was—is—strong. Not much is simple about the human psyche. "The human heart," writes the novelist Tobias Wolff, "is a dark forest." For some reason, Spitzer lost his way; he will now begin a painful process of trying to understand why. The logical place to start looking is the home in which he was raised.

Brought up in a cold-water flat in a New York slum, Eliot's father, Bernard, the son of Jewish immigrants, made a half-billion dollars in the cutthroat world of New York real estate. He and his wife, Anne, a former college literature teacher, are regarded as refined and cultivated, not domineering. But expectations in the Spitzer household in Fieldston, a wealthy enclave of the Bronx, were extremely high. A series of Eliot's childhood and college friends have reported the intimidation they felt just sitting at the Spitzer dinner table. Each of the three Spitzer children was required to hold forth and debate on worthy topics (social chitchat was frowned upon). Jason Brown, who went to Horace Mann School, Princeton and Harvard Law with Eliot, compares the dinners to "a college class where the professor grills you." Afterward came games of Monopoly that qualified as play only in the loosest sense. "I play to kill," Bernard liked to joke.

Bernard never angrily put down or humiliated his children, says a close family friend who was often in the house and didn't want to be identified talking about private matters. But the humor around the dining table could have an edge. Eliot was accustomed to the joshing and digs, and made light of it. After he moderated a panel at an evening event endowed by the Spitzer family at the 92nd Street Y, NEWSWEEK Editor Jon Meacham was greeted by Bernard, who said something mildly complimentary about Meacham's speech. Eliot, then New York attorney general, was standing nearby and told Meacham, "You know, my father doesn't hand out compliments very easily." Meacham joked, "You know, General, you've just become more explicable." Replied the younger Spitzer, "You have no idea."

The Spitzer children never rebelled. His older brother, Daniel, became a neurosurgeon. His sister, Emily, became a successful public-interest lawyer. Eliot never stopped climbing the Meritocrat Ziggurat. At Horace Mann, an incubator of competitiveness, he carried not the usual backpack but a hard briefcase, along with copies of foreign-policy magazines (to bone up for dinner). Rejected at Harvard, his aspiration, Eliot had to settle for Princeton, but got back on track by gaining admission to Harvard Law and making the Law Review. At Princeton, he was politically active, but while other students marched in protest, Eliot played squash with the university president, William Bowen. In the library, young Spitzer was known as "Ironbutt" for his prodigious study habits.

At Harvard, he met Silda, a Protestant and daughter of a North Carolina hospital administrator and a homemaker. At least one friend scoffed that he could ever win such a gorgeous woman; Spitzer proved him wrong. A brainy lawyer who gave up her career to take care of their three daughters, Silda has told reporters that she had doubts about her husband's political career; she wondered whether he had the right temperament. "But Silda, who seems to view her husband as a fragile creature, decided it was important to be supportive," New York Magazine reported last summer. She apparently understood that her husband's pride kept him from going into his father's real-estate business. "My father began with nothing," Spitzer told the New York reporter, Steve Fishman. "I would have been given something wonderful with a great opportunity to screw it up. If I'd succeeded, I would have been, rightly, viewed as, 'Well, look what you started with'."

But Spitzer was not out of his father's shadow (or debt) when he ran for office. Spitzer at first concealed, then belatedly admitted, that his father had advanced several million dollars (hidden as forgiven loans) to finance his two runs for New York state attorney general. His father's ambition was not easily satisfied. Fortune Magazine reported that, when asked if Eliot would like to be president of the United States, Bernard answered, "It's his very nature," and admitted to musing about spending the night in the Lincoln bedroom.

Spitzer was a clever prosecutor. Growing up in the socioeconomic milieu of Wall Street's barons, he knew their dirty little secrets and how to shame them. He would bring a case, then leak it to the press to force a settlement, rather than engage in endless litigation against high-priced defense lawyers. He knew that after reading their more egregious e-mails bilking clients splashed in the press, stock analysts would be eager to make a deal and move on. Spitzer befriended media types and was soon earning a reputation as "Eliot Ness" and "the Sheriff of Wall Street."

His reward was Albany, N.Y. In 2006, Spitzer won the governorship in a landslide. He modeled himself on Theodore Roosevelt, whose portrait hung prominently in his office. Spitzer was, like TR, a great, belligerent Harvard man determined to rid Albany of corruption. But Spitzer seems to have forgotten that in 1899, the hacks managed to run Roosevelt out of town within a year (the Albany bosses arranged to have Roosevelt put on President McKinley's re-election ticket for the 1900 campaign). New York state, Spitzer announced at his inaugural with a few poorly chosen words, had been asleep for a decade "like Rip Van Winkle." This, Spitzer announced, jaw jutting, was "day one."

Spitzer almost immediately got into a feud with one of the toughest bosses, the Senate majority leader, Republican Joe Bruno. Bruno called Spitzer an "overgrown, rich spoiled brat who has tantrums all over the place." Spitzer may or may not have referred to Bruno as a "senile piece of s––t," as widely reported, but he definitely told the Assembly Republican leader, James Tedisco, "I'm a f–––ing steamroller and I'll roll over you." Before long, Spitzer was embroiled in a classic Albany scandal known as "Troopergate." Spitzer's aides were caught siccing the State Police on Bruno, trying to catch him using the state helicopter for fund-raising trips. Unconvincingly, Spitzer insisted he was not directly involved (an investigation of the incident cast blame on Spitzer without finding that he broke any laws).

By last summer, Spitzer was wondering what he had gotten himself into, says a close friend who often spoke with him but declined to be identified discussing private conversations. The tabloids were jeering at "Eliot Mess," and even his defenders at The New York Times had grown chilly. The Great Crusader had been dragged down into the pits of Albany politics. This was about the time Spitzer began aping the sort of lowlifes he despised. He began consorting with prostitutes.

Spitzer had always loved risk, hurtling down black-diamond slopes (to his mother's distress) on ski vacations. Unlike more-cautious politicians, he was eager to go on "The Colbert Report"; he was unafraid of the quick give-and-take and liked to be challenged by the comedy half-hour's deadpan host. Spitzer appeared on the show on Feb. 12. The next day—the eve of Valentine's Day—he went to Washington; on the 14th, he was testifying before a Senate subcommittee on financial regulations.

According to federal records released last week, a "Client 9" had arranged to meet a prostitute named "Kristen" in room 871 around 10 p.m. Client 9 had registered under the name George Fox, one of Spitzer's donors. The Mayflower is a historic hotel. In room 776, one flight below the room where Client 9 was leaving the door ajar for Kristen, Franklin Roosevelt is said to have put the finishing touches on his 1933 Inaugural Address ("The only thing we have to fear is fear itself"). After midnight, Kristen reported back to her "dispatcher" that Client 9 had paid $4,300 for the session, including a down payment toward the next. The encounter had gone fine, though the dispatcher noted that Client 9 had been known to "ask you to do things that, like, you might not think were safe," according to federal records.

Federal investigators informed Spitzer that he was Client 9 on Friday, March 7. Remarkably, he attended the annual Washington Gridiron Dinner the following night, a press-and-pols extravaganza requiring hours of backslapping heartiness. Dressed in white tie and tails, Spitzer dutifully worked the room, though some observers later reported that he looked stricken. The next day he told his wife and family about the prostitute and the federal investigation.

It has been reported that Silda urged Spitzer not to resign. But a close Spitzer friend, Jan Constantine, who spoke sporadically to Silda last week, tells NEWSWEEK: "That first day was a very raw and emotional day. Several people, including Silda, said to Eliot, 'Don't do anything until you're in a better frame of mind.' I think her message was for him to take a deep breath and think things through before doing something rash. I don't think she was saying for him never to resign." This friend says Silda "is fiercely loyal to him, they have a good marriage, and she loves him very much. I don't think that's going to change. Not only is she fiercely loyal to him, she is also a very forgiving person. They will weather this."

The question is whether Spitzer can change. All his life, he has sought to match—or exceed—the expectations set for him. In psychological terms, his narcissistic disorder has finally caught up with him; his grandiosity has been deflated. Put more simply, this would be a good time to start thinking about how he could do something he really wants to do that is less grand but honorable and serves the public. A high school might not want to hire an ex-governor who consorted with prostitutes as a teacher, but his life experience would be a cautionary tale for all those young meritocrats who are desperately trying to please their parents.