Correction to This Article
An Aug. 6 Book World review of "Spoiling for a Fight: The Rise of Eliot Spitzer" incorrectly described Theodore Roosevelt as a former New York attorney general. Roosevelt served as governor of New York but was never attorney general.

The Contender

Reviewed by Bryan Burrough
Sunday, August 6, 2006


The Rise of Eliot Spitzer

By Brooke A. Masters

Times. 353 pp. $26

If you're not a political junkie, a New Yorker or a financial- services executive, the name Eliot Spitzer may not ring a bell. In the next few years, I'll wager, you'll be hearing it often. Spitzer is the New York attorney general who -- much like Rudolph Giuliani in the late 1980s -- is becoming a national figure by spearheading a series of high-profile investigations into the brokerage, mutual-fund and other financial industries. As the presumptive Democratic nominee in New York's gubernatorial race, he should move up the Hudson River to Albany in January, at which point his name will be thrown into far bigger hats. Obama-Spitzer 2012, anyone?

As Brooke A. Masters ably demonstrates in her new biography, Spoiling for a Fight , what makes Spitzer special is that he appears to be that rare political animal: a mainstream liberal Democrat with an actual, functioning backbone. As attorney general, he has been a one-man wrecking crew, taking on and besting everyone from Merrill Lynch to the somnolent Securities and Exchange Commission, which sought gradual change over coffee at Starbucks with Wall Streeters while Spitzer took the Merrills of the world to court. Reading this book, one comes to believe that he is the real deal: honest, fearless and very, very smart. While Spitzer has yet to perfect the role of glad-handing Gotham pol, there is nevertheless an unmistakable whiff of Clinton or Kennedy in his story.

Masters, who covers white-collar crime for The Washington Post, does a fine job here, briskly tracing Spitzer's rise to public office, parsing his headline cases and, to her credit, shining the spotlight on the individual lawyers in the attorney general's office who actually initiated many of the investigations that form the foundation of the Spitzer legend. The book is well-researched, even-handed and thoughtful; Masters will no doubt become cable television's leading Spitzerologist for years to come. About the only mark against Spoiling for a Fight is that Masters never truly finds an authorial voice; thorough as her research is, the book reads like a 300-page newspaper article.

Masters is especially adept at placing Spitzer in a historical, political and legal context, drawing parallels, for instance, between his career and that of another progressive New York attorney general, Theodore Roosevelt. (Don't laugh; she makes the case.) Spitzer, who granted Masters several interviews, goes to great lengths to emphasize (convincingly) that he is not some rock-throwing, anti-capitalist radical; like Roosevelt, he embraces the free-market system, working inside it to correct deficiencies.

The fact that a New York official pursued the cases that Washington should have -- it was Spitzer, for instance, who felled Merrill's two-faced Internet analyst Henry Blodget for his conflicts of interest -- was as much a product of the SEC's coddling of Wall Street as of the attorney general's own aggressiveness. (An SEC friend, speaking at a Spitzer roast, read a mock telegram "from Eliot to the Vatican. 'Dear Pontiff: I have some comments on recent papal edicts. . . . As I read the Stamp Act of 1785, I have the authority to tax and regulate all items passing through New York, which we believe includes Catholicism.' ") Spitzer justifies his incursions onto federal turf by citing the Bush administration's efforts to palm off the provision of legal and other services onto the states. Washington's retreat left a gaping hole, Spitzer contends, which states -- to the dismay of corporate chieftains -- had a duty to fill. Talk about your law of unintended consequences.

Spitzer has been criticized by the usual suspects for over-aggressiveness, publicity-hogging and precedent-stretching -- the kinds of things every chesty attorney general gets accused of. Masters's portrayal of his upbringing undercuts these charges. The son of a wealthy, up-from-the-Lower-East-Side real-estate developer, Spitzer grew up in one of those frighteningly intellectual Upper West Side households (actually, the Riverdale section of the Bronx, which is a de facto Upper West Side colony) where every child must come to the dinner table with a topic for debate and everyone argues about Kant and Kierkegaard while families like mine are watching SportsCenter. If you didn't know the Spitzer family, you'd really need to hate them.

By the time he went to Princeton, Spitzer was already a wonk's wonk, the kind of earnest young heir who spent summers interning for Ralph Nader and working construction and wearing destiny on his arm like a tattoo. He took a star turn at the Manhattan district attorney's office and tried private practice for a few years, but his obvious ambition -- the rare topic Masters refrains from exploring -- propelled him prematurely into the 1994 race for state attorney general. He was roundly thrashed, but his poise and intellect got him noticed. Four years later, thanks in no small part to his family's millions, he won the brass ring.

One anecdote in Spoiling for a Fight particularly epitomizes Spitzer. In the middle of his investigation into duplicitous securities analysts, he accepted an invitation to speak at an Institutional Investor banquet honoring the "all-star" analysts of the year. Spitzer had a fire-breathing speech prepared and resisted an aide's entreaties to tone it down. Instead, he lectured the crowd on how the "star" analysts had let their clients down. "When measured by the performance of their stock recommendations," he said, "only one of this year's fifty-one first-team all-stars . . . ranked first in their sector." The audience actually began streaming to the exits. "I'm not going to sit here and listen to this [expletive]," one snapped.

Like him or loathe him, you can't help but admire a man who can pull off something like that. ยท

Bryan Burrough is a special correspondent at Vanity Fair. He is the author of "Dragonfly" and "Vendetta" and the coauthor of "Barbarians at the Gate."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company