Not long after he burst into the national consciousness with his blistering assault on Wall Street, Eliot Spitzer began facing pressures of his own.
Even supporters were wearying of his constant criticism of federal regulators. Their failure to crack down on financial-industry malfeasance had opened the window for him to emerge as the "Sheriff of Wall Street." But Spitzer's inability to get along with his peers at the Securities and Exchange Commission was starting to cloud his hoped-for ascension to the New York governor's office, where collegiality was viewed as essential. Thus, Spitzer emphatically pledged at the start of a packed news conference to lay off the SEC.
Yet, moments later, he was at it again with a fresh diatribe — this time with an ashen-faced SEC official standing just behind him.
As the Los Angeles Times' Wall Street reporter at the time, I chronicled Spitzer's blitzkrieg against disreputable stock analysts, mutual funds and others. No one at that news conference, of course, could foresee that Spitzer's career would eventually rupture in a prostitution scandal. But to those of us who watched him that day, the message was clear: Even when Eliot Spitzer knew better he just couldn't help himself.
That theme radiates throughout Peter Elkind's "Rough Justice," an absorbing account of Spitzer's improbable journey from New York rich kid to celebrated Wall Street scourge — to infamous Client No. 9 of the Emperor's Club.
An editor at large at Fortune magazine and co-author of a book about the downfall of Enron Corp., Elkind captures the conflicting sides of Spitzer. He was an idealist who was genuinely outraged by the Wall Street pandemic. Yet Spitzer was also plagued by a volcanic temper and an over-caffeinated ego that was unable to keep his worst impulses in check.
In the end, Spitzer comes off as pitiable, painfully aware of the career he threw away.
"That's my life," Spitzer tells Elkind. "Is it pure agony? Yes, absolutely."
Thanks partly to Spitzer's willingness to be interviewed, "Rough Justice" adds fresh details to the prostitution furor that dethroned him. Elkind reveals that Spitzer hired prostitutes more extensively than previously revealed, dropping more than $100,000 on more than 20 assignations over at least two years. Elkind also tells us that — true to character — Spitzer offended some of his hires by rushing through the ritual pleasantries at the beginning of their sessions.
"He was not one of those people who I would have said went out of their way to make me feel lovely and nice, like many did," one woman laments. "It was very impersonal."
The book tantalizingly suggests that the disclosure of Spitzer's activities may have resulted from a conspiracy by his enemies to out him. Federal prosecutors normally don't pursue prostitution cases, Elkind explains.
A wire transfer that Spitzer made to pay for one of his dalliances triggered a suspicious-activity report to federal banking authorities who were on the lookout for terrorist activities. But there are so many such reports, Elkind writes, that it's unlikely prosecutors would have noticed it without being tipped off.
"Why did Spitzer's sexual habits become the target of federal investigative methods befitting an Al Qaeda terrorist?" he asks.
Elkind acknowledges, however, that he wasn't able to gather enough evidence to say for sure, leaving "nothing more than intriguing speculation." Among those who think Spitzer was laid low by his enemies is Spitzer's wife, Silda, who, we're told, views him as a "felled crusader."
Elkind portrays Silda Spitzer as struggling to make sense of her husband's betrayal. Early on, a Spitzer aide quotes her as saying she believed she was at fault for not satisfying her husband sexually. She later concludes that his straying was all about him, not her, Elkind writes. Still, in some ways Silda apparently sees her husband as a victim himself — of his own grueling expectations and his emotionally Spartan upbringing.
His demanding father presided over dinner-table debates with his children. Despite being co-captain of his prep school tennis team, his parents attended only one match.
"In Silda's eyes, he had remained true to his public promise…" Elkind writes. "Yes, he had succumbed to temptation. But that was the result of the impossible expectations he had created, the brutal pressures he had faced in public life — and his inbred inability to find a healthier way to deal with them."
The ultimate irony, of course, is that the type of abuses Spitzer spent his career railing against exploded during the global financial crisis. Instead of playing a lead role in the cleanup, Spitzer was confined to the sidelines, fulminating in TV interviews and a regular Internet column but mostly haunted by four words: what might have been.