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Spitzer's Tragic Flaw

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By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The brave hero brought low by his own arrogance. The unyielding warrior undone by the kind of fatal flaw he could not abide in others. The tragedy of the Emperors Club VIP Client 9, better known as Eliot Spitzer, is one of Greek dimensions.

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Yet Spitzer's downfall unfolded Monday not with the flowery lamentations of a Greek chorus but with the mundane details of a transaction that sounded like more hassle than thrill, recited with the arid matter-of-factness of a criminal affidavit.

For all its legalistic precision, it is impossible to read this document without being gripped by a sense of foreboding at watching a once-stellar career cut short, without being overwhelmed by sadness at whatever inner demons drove Spitzer to take such irrational risks. "Great, okay, wonderful," Client 9 says when told his "date" will be Kristen, a 5-foot-5-inch, 105-pound brunette, and the uncontainable exuberance of New York's governor fairly leaps off the page.

"No, stop, it's not worth it!" you want to shout, even as you know the drama will play out until its tragic, tawdry conclusion: the grim Spitzer standing at a lectern; his stricken, betrayed wife by his side for all 67 excruciating seconds of public contrition. You imagine her dressing for the dreaded event, choosing the elegant double strand of pearls, a tasteful counterpoint to the seaminess of the episode swirling around her.

This is a story at once compelling and familiar: another politician confounded by an outsize sense of his own invulnerability and driven to skate on the edge. Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, David Vitter and the D.C. Madam, Mark Foley at his laptop, Larry Craig in the airport bathroom stall.

Of all the people who should have been smart enough to avoid this, it is Spitzer, the prosecutor who was careful enough to avoid wire transfers but too reckless to heed the other, obvious perils. How could he not have realized that he was easily recognizable? How could he not have worried about the inevitable cyber-trail of cellphone records and e-mails? At some level, he must have wanted to be caught.

I can understand the delicious sense of schadenfreude with which Spitzer's manifold enemies, on Wall Street and in Albany, are greeting his demise. This is, after all, the prosecutor who not only delighted in hauling off corporate wrongdoers -- he thundered against the evils of prostitution rings. This is the governor who took office last year warning of "the front-page stories of scandal fresh in our minds" and lecturing that "we are in danger of losing the confidence of those who elected us."

If the self-described steamroller is now steamrolled, those whom he flattened, or threatened to, can be forgiven for taking some pleasure in the spectacle.

I don't, although I find his behavior reprehensible. Spitzer and I were law school classmates; I know him, like him and respect him. I have watched with growing fascination his time in office -- first his bravura performance as New York attorney general, then his shaky start as governor.

In Albany, Spitzer was more victim than beneficiary of his hard-driving personality. He wanted to do so much, tasks both glamorous and mundane -- clean up Albany, overhaul the workers' comp system, get Medicaid spending under control, expand health coverage for uninsured children -- that he forgot a cardinal rule of politics: Don't take on too many fights or make too many enemies at once. By the time the previous Spitzer scandal erupted -- his aides' use of state troopers to keep tabs on his chief political rival -- many conversations about the governor's political future employed the past tense.

I interviewed Spitzer most recently the day after his reported assignation, when we sat in his office, surrounded by a posse of aides, the governor eating a sandwich and chips, talking about everything from the presidential campaign to the bond market crisis about which he had just testified to his bungled handling of a plan to offer driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. Saturday night at the Gridiron dinner, Spitzer seemed his usual energetic self, working the room, never betraying that his meteoric career was about to crash.

After the news broke, less than 48 hours later, I came across a speech Spitzer gave last August on "The Need for Both Passion and Humility in Politics." Taking as his guide the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, Spitzer expounded on the dangers of hubris. His particular focus was foreign policy, but Spitzer's point was broader than that -- and prescient. "Driven by hubris," he said, "we become blind to our own fallibility and make terrible mistakes."

The Greeks could not have put it better.

--

In my March 5 column I incorrectly attributed a line to the late Texas Gov. Ann Richards. It was another Texas politician, Jim Hightower, who said of George H.W. Bush, not George W. Bush, that he was born on third base but thought he had hit a triple.

marcusr@washpost.com


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