Review of Peter Elkind's 'Rough Justice: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer'

By Brooke Masters
Sunday, April 25, 2010


The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer

By Peter Elkind

Portfolio. 304 pp. $26.95

He's back. Disgraced former New York governor Eliot Spitzer is all over the airwaves these days. Recalling his glory days as "the Sheriff of Wall Street" who brought high-profile cases against banks and insurance companies, he now positions himself as a misunderstood financial-sector Cassandra, implying that he knew the crash was coming. A mini-groundswell seems to be building for his rehabilitation, as Spitzer insists he has never ruled out running for office again.

Last week's arrival in bookstores of Peter Elkind's "Rough Justice" therefore could not be timelier. This well-written book provides an entertaining gallop through Spitzer's career as New York attorney general, followed by much closer scrutiny of his disastrous 13 months as governor and the prostitution scandal that sent him packing. Spitzer comes across as a hot-headed reformer who effectively used his prosecutorial powers to uncover and stop some bank and mutual fund abuses, but then proved unable to engage in the horse-trading and compromises critical to lasting political success.

Elkind is best known for "The Smartest Guys in the Room," a book on the Enron scandal that he wrote with Bethany McLean. He is a fantastic researcher who has used both his powers of persuasion and the freedom of information laws to full advantage. Readers are treated to the frantic e-mails of aides as they coped with Spitzer's foul-mouthed tirades and wild mood swings. The book also has the first interviews with the governor's favorite date from the Emperors Club prostitution ring. Initially, "he was very businesslike . . . very impersonal," Elkind quotes the hooker dubbed Angelina as saying. But she insisted that Spitzer slow down, have a Scotch and make conversation.

Sadder are the plaintive regrets of Spitzer's wronged wife, Silda Wall, whose decision to stand by her man became a late-night talk show joke and the inspiration for the television show "The Good Wife." "The wife is supposed to take care of the sex. This is my failing; I wasn't adequate," Elkind reports Wall as saying.

But "Rough Justice" ends up falling short, particularly in its interviews with Spitzer and in its efforts to explain why he self-destructed. Spitzer is a notoriously unreflective man, and Elkind was no more successful than prior authors (including me) at extracting insights into his motivations. He dismissively tells Elkind, "You gotta say this was an act of stupid hubris," and the author concludes that Spitzer "had needs and . . . women for hire -- there at his call, dismissed when he was done, making no demands other than payment -- provided an elegant solution."

Elkind does his carefully researched book a disservice by including a seven-page section that explores whether Spitzer was set up. He offers anecdotes suggesting that the governor's political rivals Andrew Cuomo and Thomas Suozzi and his legal adversary Ken Langone all had some sort of advance warning of Spitzer's personal peccadilloes. But the book then acknowledges that these stories are "nothing more than intriguing speculation."

The real explanation of how Spitzer was brought down seems more likely to lie in another incident Elkind has unearthed, a July 2007 call Spitzer placed to Adam Brenner, vice president of North Fork Bank, in which the then-governor asked if it was possible "to wire money where it's not evident it's coming from me." Why is anyone surprised that the incident was promptly reported to the Internal Revenue Service and quickly went from there to the U.S. attorney's public corruption unit? That is how the system is supposed to work, and it did.

Elkind is sympathetic to Spitzer's efforts at rehabilitation, asking at one point, "Should we care so much about personal flaws when our government -- and our financial system -- is so hobbled by . . . incompetence and greed?" But Spitzer's history does not support claims that he would have been ideally positioned to prevent the financial crisis. His investigation of American International Group focused on accounting, not the structured products unit that ultimately cost U.S. taxpayers billions. Far from spotting troubles in the subprime mortgage market, Spitzer drew criticism as attorney general for failing to bring any significant real estate cases. It also seems improbable that the political skills that failed him so badly as governor would have worked better in the debate over financial reform.

In sum, the picture of Spitzer that emerges from "Rough Justice" does much to strip the former crusader of what remains of his white hat.

Brooke Masters is the chief regulation correspondent for the Financial Times and the author of "Spoiling for a Fight: The Rise Eliot Spitzer."

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