Thursday, March 13, 2008

He could have been America's first Jewish president

Eliot's waste land
Michael Tomasky
March 10, 2008 8:30 PM

He could have been America's first Jewish president. Instead, the career of New York's crime-fighting governor is being ended by a sex scandal

When the news first broke earlier today, it was vague enough - Spitzer "involved in" prostitution ring - that maybe it was possible that New York governor Eliot Spitzer could skate through.

But now, an updated version of the story on the New York Times' website - a version that adds the co-byline of the Times' great police and crime reporter Bill Rashbaum, who has crazy sources on this kind of thing - indicates that Spitzer was caught on a federal wiretap arranging to meet with a prostitute in Washington DC last month. Last month!

He's finished. He did not say outright in his brief statement, issued at around 3pm east coast time, that he'll resign. But he'll resign. No governor can survive this. Especially not one who has so few friends and allies willing to go to the mat for him. I would expect he'll be gone by tomorrow.

This is just one of the most unbelievable political stories of the last couple years, and it caps (and ends) a pitiful gubernatorial term for a man who, just two years ago, was being touted as the guy who could one day become America's first Jewish president.

As attorney general of New York state, Spitzer could do no wrong. He sued and prosecuted all sorts of white-collar bad guys, won and relished his reputation as a white knight (even if some think he ultimately went too easy on Merrill Lynch, the deal he cut with Merrill didn't undercut the media's basic white-knight narrative). When Republican George Pataki announced that he would not seek re-election in 2006, it was a fait accompli that Spitzer would win the governor's race. He rolled.

The problems started very early on last year, with the so-called Troopergate scandal, in which he tried to destroy the Republican leader of the state senate. Within weeks of taking office, Spitzer's approval ratings were in the toilet. That was a worse-than-average political scandal, but the kind from which politicians who have three years until they face the voters again routinely come back from.

They don't come back from this.

What could he possibly have been thinking? (Yes, he's married, with three kids.) It just leaves one speechless. "OK, let's see. I'm the governor of New York, one of the highest-profile governors in the country. I have a reputation for self-righteousness. I'm already screwing up my job. I have loads of people out to get me. What should I do? Yeah, I know - go see a hooker!" Jesus H Christ.

I've known Spitzer since 1994. He ran a first race for attorney general, a race most of New York subsequently forgot completely about, when he finished fourth out of four candidates in the Democratic primary. He ran then as a centrist New Democrat and was a lousy candidate.

Four years later, he moved a little to the left to make himself more attractive to New York's Democratic voters. He won easily that time around. Then, he got to work. I remember interviewing him a few months into his term in office. He had assembled a great team of lawyers and investigators. He, I thought to myself, will be making a lot of noise over the next four years.

Well, his career is over. The next governor of New York will be David Paterson, an African American former state senator from Harlem who is now lieutenant governor (an office that serves the same function as vice-president nationally). Paterson is legally blind. He's the son of a historic figure in New York state black politics, Basil Paterson, who was a major leader in the first generation of really powerful black politicians in New York. I've known David for a long time too and have had a mostly good opinion of him, but lieutenant governors are basically there to balance the ticket and cut ribbons. Whether he's ready for this assignment is a very open question.

This is one of the most operatic political flame-outs in recent American history. Will even one male politician learn anything from this? I think we all know the answer to that.

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