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Eliot Spitzer has a lesson to pass along

The former New York governor, forced to resign over a moral issue, is back as an economics commentator. He's but one disgraced figure writing a new chapter.

April 06, 2009|Reed Johnson

Barely a year after being forced to resign as New York governor amid derision and fury over his identification as "Client 9" of a prostitution ring, Eliot Spitzer is back in the public arena -- not as an elected official but as a pundit.

In what has become an increasingly familiar ritual among American public figures who've fallen from grace, Spitzer has embarked on a public rehabilitation process through the media.

Since December, Spitzer has been writing a regular column for Slate, the left-leaning online journal; he's also turned up in other media forums and is scheduled for an appearance today on NBC's "Today" show.

The man once known as the "Sheriff of Wall Street" for his pursuit of corporate malfeasance while New York attorney general is training his columnist's eye primarily on the failings of Manhattan's moneyed institutions and sounding alarms about what he sees as America's inadequate response to the economic meltdown.

His writings have drawn considerable attention, and at least one journalist has called for Spitzer to return to public service, a proposition that would've been virtually unthinkable last spring.

"At a certain level, obviously, or maybe not so obviously, I do love the substance of politics, the policy debate," Spitzer said by phone this week. "And at a moment where we're, I think it's fair to say, in some state of crisis economically, I have an urge to try to participate and contribute in some small way if I can.

"I'm taking this really one step at a time. I enjoy writing. Earlier in my career most of the writing I did was as a lawyer, which is, as you can imagine, rather turgid and not as snappy as journalistic writing."

Since Spitzer began penning his Slate column, his views have won praise from predominantly moderate and liberal media quarters, including Newsweek and the New York Times, and he has appeared on television and radio talk shows. "Welcome back, Mr. ex-Governor," saluted a New York Observer article taking note of the recent "Spitzer boomlet."

One Slate column, headlined "The Real AIG Scandal," in which Spitzer argued that the funneling of the company's bailout money to large investment houses was a bigger "disgrace" than the insurance giant's payment of bonuses to its workers, drew particular attention.

Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of the Nation, went so far in print as to suggest Spitzer as a potential replacement for recently embattled Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.

"Call me crazy," she wrote. "But he [Spitzer] foresaw the bubbles and disasters resulting from deregulatory frenzy . . . ."

From the other side of the political spectrum, the conservative Weekly Standard has lamented Spitzer's resurgence as a sign of how public figures no longer are required to serve lengthy penances for their misdeeds.

He's not alone

Spitzer is only one of several elected officials and public figures who in the last few years have been resurrected as media analysts after being banished to the political wilderness or, in the case of hot-tempered former Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight, the fringes of the NCAA. And the phenomenon appears to be a bipartisan one.

The growing list of such figures includes William Bennett, the former U.S. Education secretary and public moralist who admitted a passion for high-stakes gambling and is now a TV pundit; the tantrum-throwing Knight, a sometime television analyst; Newt Gingrich, the onetime House speaker who was disciplined by Congress for ethical wrongdoing but has since returned as a leading conservative consultant; and Henry Blodget, who left Wall Street under a cloud after being barred from the securities industry for life for allegedly committing securities fraud and now runs a consulting firm and writes for Slate, among others.

One of those who played a role in precipitating Blodget's flight from Wall Street was Spitzer, who as attorney general published e-mails in which Blodget denigrated stocks that he had touted in public.

In an interview, Slate Editor David Plotz said that Spitzer's column venture had grown out of the former governor's longtime friendship with Cliff Sloan, Slate's former publisher, which dates to the men's days together as Harvard University law students. Plotz said Spitzer also was friendly with Jacob Weisberg, chairman and editor in chief of the Slate Group, a unit of the Washington Post Co.

"Eliot was thinking about what he should do and Jacob knew what a smart guy he was," said Plotz, who described Spitzer as "brilliant and prescient" in anticipating some of the causes of the current economic downturn.

Plotz acknowledged that he and Weisberg had talked about whether Spitzer's scandal-plagued past would keep readers from taking him seriously as a moral authority on financial issues.

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