Eliot Spitzer's monumental fall from grace

In the post-dot-com, post-Enron era, the attorney general of New York landed some uppercuts on the high and mighty. But now he's the one lying on the mat. By his own hand.

Published March 10, 2008 8:15PM (EDT)

"I acted in a way that violated my obligation to my family."

Eliot Spitzer, governor of New York

As a reporter and editor who spent a good part of his career critically covering the excesses of the dot-com economy and the Enron era of runaway greed, the emergence in the early 2000s of Eliot Spitzer as a crusading attorney general, clad in shining armor and pointing his lance directly at Wall Street's biggest fat cats, was an unexpected dream. While the politicians in Washington were betraying every trust, Spitzer had the effrontery to act as if he had a responsibility to prevent the powerful from profiting at the expense of the rest of us.

It was one thing to get riled in an online publication about the unseemliness of Wall Street analysts issuing rosy reports about piece-of-crap stocks, because it was important to their employers to keep clients happy. It was another to see the attorney general of the state of New York bring cases against Merrill Lynch and Citigroup, and expose the slimy behavior of cockroaches like Henry Blodget to the cold light of public ridicule. It was one thing to shower disgust upon the way dot-com IPOs were rigged to make killings for the biggest feeders at the investment bank trough, at the expense of both the general public and the start-ups themselves. It was quite another to see Spitzer make the biggest banks on Wall Street bend their knee to him, pay $1.4 billion in fines, and agree to new rules that supposedly signaled a new day.

It was one thing to rage about the disproportionate wealth raked in by the likes of the New York Stock Exchange's Dick Grasso or Worldcom's Bernie Ebbers or AIG's Maurice Greenberg. It was something else entirely to hear Eliot Spitzer declare, as he did to Salon's Damien Cave in 2002, that his explicit goal was to get "the imperial CEOs" to "disgorge" their "ill-gotten gains."

And so on.

Critics, usually from the right, took potshots at Spitzer as a grandstanding showboat who often pursued companies more aggressively than perhaps the facts warranted. And we all knew he was positioning himself for a run for governor, cagily cashing in on an era when popular sentiment, spurred on by the dot-com crash and the revelations of Enron and Worldcom, had turned sharply against Wall Street.

But, I cannot deny it -- I cheered him on. He was the unexpected underdog who comes out of nowhere and starts landing one uppercut after another into the chins of a murderer's row of 800-pound gorillas. We called him, here at Salon, "the most feared man on Wall Street," and we said it with respect. If only we could get someone like him in the White House -- maybe then, we'd take care of some real business.

Oh well.

If I needed yet another lesson in why hero worship is always, invariably, a bad and stupid idea, I could not ask for one delivered to me on a bigger silver platter. The stupidity and arrogance implicit in Spitzer's alleged involvement in a prostitution ring -- which he hasn't yet explicitly admitted to, but most certainly did not deny -- betrays not just the trust of his family, but also of those who supported him for fighting the good fight. He's not the man we thought he was -- and in a profoundly depressing way, it somehow makes us a little less than we thought we were, for having bought into his chivalry. It is a monumental fall from grace. And it inexorably raises the question: Who's next?

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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