As the political career of Eliot Spitzer melts down, many will lament that what the governor on Monday called his "progressive politics" fell victim to his personal foibles. If only he hadn't made mistakes in his private life, they will moan, New York could have been redeemed from its squalid, special-interest dominated stagnation.
That's nonsense. More is at issue here than a mere private mistake. The governor's frequent use of a prostitution ring was of public concern because, notes Henry Stern, head of the watchdog group New York Civic, "people could easily have blackmailed him, you can't have that if you're governor."
True enough, New York's dysfunctional and secretive state government desperately needs fumigation, with both political parties sharing in the blame. But Mr. Spitzer's head-butting approach to redemption involving the arbitrary use of power and bully-boy tactics was no improvement. As for reform, his first budget grew state spending at three times the rate of inflation, and is a major reason the state now faces a $4.5 billion deficit. When the governor tried to reform the state's bloated Medicaid program, the health-care workers' union ran a TV campaign against him, and he quickly caved.
Mr. Spitzer seemed to excel only in the zeal with which he would go after perceived adversaries. Last summer, his staff infamously used the state police to track the movements of Joe Bruno, the Republican president of the state senate, in an effort to destroy his career. Mr. Spitzer then ferociously fought investigators who wanted to examine his office's email traffic for evidence the governor himself may have been involved. His approval rating in New York, a strongly Democratic state, fell to 27%.
Despite that wakeup call, months after the Bruno incident Mr. Spitzer called up a close ally of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. This source told me that the governor asked him to deliver what the ally considered a threatening and insulting message to the mayor. The Bloomberg confidant, who like many sources commenting on Mr. Spitzer refused to be named, advised the governor to reconsider if that was the message he really wanted to send, but the governor insisted.
No doubt more examples of Mr. Spitzer's dubious behavior will now find their way into the media. But his career as a prosecutor provided plenty of warning signs he was destined for trouble, and each of his political campaigns featured clear attempts to circumvent campaign-finance laws. For example, in 1998 Mr. Spitzer admitted to the New York Times that he had skirted state election laws by failing to disclose a last-minute infusion of cash into his 1994 campaign for attorney general from his wealthy father.
Such chicanery wasn't an auspicious launching pad for his own investigations of corporate misbehavior. He certainly did expose some malfeasance and shady dealing. But historian Fred Siegel notes that he quickly moved on to "less and less substantial" and appropriate targets in search of headlines. And he used New York's Martin Act, a uniquely harsh law allowing prosecutors to declare almost anything a "fraud," and no requirement on their part to prove criminal intent, to trample the due-process rights of anyone blocking his path to the TV cameras.
Companies almost always agreed to Mr. Spitzer's demands that they pay stiff fines and change the way they operated all without any trials or judicial determinations that they had done anything wrong. "It became a kind of blackmail," Mr. Siegel says, "in which he said to companies, if you don't put my friends in high positions in your company I'll drag you through the mud."
"He was the investigator, the prosecutor, the judge, the jury and the executioner," says Thomas Donahue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He notes that Mr. Spitzer would frequently settle with corporate higher-ups, who were wealthy enough to pay millions in fines, and then go after their lower-level employees. Those individuals were often found not guilty at trial but these courtroom defeats, as Mr. Spitzer learned from the experience of that other hyperactive prosecutor, Rudy Giuliani, would generate few headlines.
Mr. Spitzer cloaked his naked devaluation of the rule of law with gauzy rhetoric that was perfectly pitched to make many liberals ignore his strong-arm tactics. He harshly criticized advocates of judicial restraint such as Antonin Scalia as believing in "a dead piece of paper." In a Law Day ceremony, Mr. Spitzer was blunt: "I believe in an evolving Constitution. . . . A flexible Constitution allows us to consider not merely how the world was, but how it ought to be."
He was vague as to just what his Brave New World would look like. "One of the things that I enjoy about going to Washington is the opportunity of testifying, chapter after chapter, that self-regulation has failed," he said to reporters, adding, "What is it to be replaced with? I'm not sure."
Still, he was pretty sure of his blowtorch tactics. In 2005, Mr. Spitzer revealingly told TV host Stephen Colbert in all seriousness that as a kid he was the "enforcer" on his soccer team, the guy who "took people out."
An enduring lesson of the Spitzer meltdown should be that crusaders of all types who operate outside the rule books themselves merit a gimlet eye of scrutiny. An enduringly popular symbol in our culture is the man on the white horse who comes to clean up the town and purge it of its errant ways. But in the harsh reality of politics, for every selfless Lone Ranger who arrives on his trusty steed and does good, there are many more budding Napoleons who harshly impose their will and fall prey to vices they pledged to root out.