Pride goeth before Eliot Spitzer’s fall

It was almost always hubris that led to the downfall of heroes in ancient Greek tragedies. If you had somehow missed that quality in New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, you could have caught up with it in Nick Paumgarten’s New Yorker piece last December.

The writer told about flying with the governor in a twin-turboprop from Buffalo to New York City, and how the governor would look down, see something of policy interest and launch into detailed discourse.

Paumgarten was moved to ask whether the governor on such flights ever thought this great, big state was his, all his.

“Yeah, that’s just what I think,” he quotes Spitzer as replying.

There’s more of this sort of thing in the article, and what you learn about is a pride, a monarchical arrogance, a sense Spitzer has had that he is vastly superior to others, always right and a law unto himself. It is in part this self-important egotism that propelled him to a political success that once seemed to have no limit, and yet it is the same arrogance that has gotten him into a fix from which there seems no likely rescue ever.

His glory days were when he was the state’s attorney general and would get major corporations to get down on their knees and beg for mercy. Given their reflexive, anti-business animus, many in the press couldn’t get enough of this. To them, Spitzer was a giant killer who was fighting back for the sake of common folks.

The truth was something else. He was a bully who would threaten ruination if his victims defended themselves from his designs. He could be unmercifully tough, though quick to look the other way when friends and supporters were possible transgressors.

But never mind, because this fiercely driven, tenacious Sir Galahad stood boldly atop a mountain of favorable press clippings, and it was no easy thing to combat his image. When he ran for governor, he won with an astounding 69 percent of the vote, though it did not take long for him to land in trouble.

First, there was the outrage when his administration began spying on a Republican rival, and then there was his decree that illegal immigrants should be eligible for driver’s licenses. Less than a full year into his tenure, his popularity had declined to about a third of what it had been, and to understand why more fully, it helps to go back to the New Yorker piece.

It tells how Spitzer, who seemed to see state government as a one-man operation, had little or no use for collaboration. Before his arrival, nothing had ever been done right in Albany, he clearly thought. He alienated almost everyone, and a “dysfunctional” government grew worse. And yet he conceded “little in the way of doubt or regret.”

All of which brings us to the moment’s scandal. Here on the one hand is a reform-insistent, self-righteous governor who as attorney general had once prosecuted two prostitution rings, speaking of them with “revulsion and anger,” according to one press account. Here on the other hand is a man who allegedly made arrangements to transport a prostitute across state lines for an expensive evening in Washington’s Mayflower Hotel. There’s a lot at play in that decision, not the least of it being an attitude that says, “I am untouchable, I am answerable to a different set of rules than others.”

For my part, I’d like to extend my thanks to a woman identified in one story I read only as being petite, attractive and going by the first name of Kristen. She has helped to ensure that “Client 9,” a/k/a Eliot Spitzer, will never achieve one of his supposed ambitions, namely to be president of the United States. From this fall, I doubt he will ever get up.

(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)