What Makes Spitzer Tick?

I had been told that Eliot Spitzer was a total, remorseless animal. The white-collar defense lawyers, Albany politicians and New York reporters I knew said so, and there was plenty of evidence of his ruthlessness and extreme self-regard in his track record as attorney general of New York state. Yet when I met him and traveled with him as he campaigned for governor, I swear that I detected something vaguely melancholy and rueful about the guy. It made me wonder. Now I know why.

Spitzer is a type I have seen before: a candidate who needs to rocket at warp speed because he does not dare stop to consider whether he really wants to be living the political career he is living. Spitzer, it turns out, hated some or all of what he was, what he wanted to be, or what he had become. Why else would he knowingly risk destroying his life's career—as he apparently did, federal prosecutors suggest, by participating in an online prostitution ring?

To make things worse, this year Spitzer saw his trajectory flattening out. Son of a wealthy New York real estate man, educated at Princeton and Harvard, Spitzer had been told forever that he would be "the first Jewish president." But after having been elected governor by a landslide, he botched his first year in Albany. He stupidly unleashed state troopers to spy on his Republican enemies. He acted imperiously with small-time upstate politicos. He had worthy goals but not the political touch to implement them.

Nationally, he was blocked. He endorsed Sen. Hillary Clinton for president early on. He hoped she would win so that he could then jump to the U.S. Senate and let Andrew Cuomo run for governor. But then Sen. Barack Obama emerged, screwing up those plans in every which way. Now, suddenly, Hillary was no shoo-in, and Obamania was a cold bucket of water in the face of every other would-be, lean-as-a-whippet young candidate of change. Obama was the real deal out of Harvard Law. Maybe the first Jewish president would actually be an African-American!

Suddenly Spitzer was facing a future as a schlepper.

Of all the ironies here is the most exquisite. Spitzer tried to take down Dick Grasso, the former head of the New York Stock Exchange, for financial misconduct by raising unfounded—and unconnected—allegations of sexual misconduct. Talk about chutzpah!

Some of my best professional friends are his closest personal friends. These are people who are secure in their lives and in what they do, and, it seemed to me, they always spoke of "Eliot" in tones that were both awestruck and a little worried, if not put off. As I look back on it, they seemed to sense an explosive danger in a man loaded with so much rocket fuel. He could blow up on the launching pad.

He just did.