How does an attorney general of the state of New York become the governor by a vote of 69% in his favor, go to Albany to clean up the state’s mess, and end up being forced to resign because of a high-class prostitution sting run by the federal government? This is, for those who remember, exactly what happened to former-governor Eliot Spitzer, who in 2006 was a strongly favored person of interest in the Democratic party in discussions about the next candidate for President of the United States. Spitzer rose like a rocket and came down almost as fast.
I followed the Spitzer story when it broke like many of you probably did as well. But I had never investigated the sordid tale with any degree of objective interest. Then I saw the incredibly well-done documentary Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer.
Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer is a documentary directed by Alex Gibney, an award winning documentary producer. It is, of course, about former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer and the sex scandal that derailed his political career. It premiered on 1 October 2010 on Magnolia On Demand and then opened in selected movie theatres on 5 November 2010 in North America. It is now available on DVD. As I often do I borrowed my copy from the public library.
Why did Spitzer really fall? The reason he and the documentary gives us is that he was reckless and unfaithful to his wife by hiring an expensive escort service to provide him a very young woman who give him a few hours of pleasure on several occasions. Spitzer’s particular problem, in terms of this sordid mess, was that he had legally opposed such escort services (a fancy name for very expensive prostitution) as the attorney general. He had also given everyone the public (and even private) image of a faithful husband who was a good father of three teenage daughters. From all appearances he was not interested in adultery with a person close to himself precisely because he did love his wife and family. His friends, many interviewed on Client 9, were all, without exception, stunned by his moral failure. (Consider the stark contrast to President Clinton, of whom dozens of reports of his reckless escapades circulated for decades!) Further, the governors wife, Silda, was not a public or political figure but an attractive wife and involved mother who supported her husbands meteoric rise openly. His fall just made no sense. But then such a fall often doesn’t make perfect sense does it? He admits, quite candidly in what seems to be moments of frank honesty, that his lust for fantasy and pleasure in secret ruined his life.
But there is much more to the Spitzer failure than the lust of one governor. It should be noted that prosecutors do sometimes seek to indict and convict madam services it is never their intention to prosecute the client of the service, just the service itself. But this is precisely what makes Client 9 so intriguing. The goal of this operation was to focus its sting very particularly on Spitzer, and not on the nine clients they tracked in secret. They wire-tapped and trailed ten men but we have no idea who nine were.
Spitzer’s opponents hated him so deeply that there is great reason to believe his indiscretion allowed them to (intentionally?) discover the “facts” that they needed to bring him down. He committed no state or federal crimes. In fact what he did involved no legal issues at all, as did the Clinton/Lewinsky investigation that eventually involved the president in perjury. The problem was that Spitzer, known as the" “Sheriff of Wall Street,” made many political enemies in a short time in office as attorney general and governor. Why? He investigated white collar crime and Wall Street corruption as the attorney general and sought to make deep changes in the bureaucracy in Albany. One of his subjects, Maurice “Hank” Greenberg (photo), was determined to destroy him. Greenberg, the former Chairman and CEO of AIG, is downright creepy, brutally vane and super vindictive. Why? Spitzer was particularly interested in exposing what was going on at the giant insurance firm AIG. Lest you forget it was a federal bailout of AIG that was a huge revelatory moment in the first steps that led us into our present recession. Spitzer also made an enemy of the former majority leader of the New York senate, Joe Bruno (1994-2008), a Republican who fits the portrait of a crony and poll if there ever was one. Bruno is interviewed extensively in Client 9. His hubris is more striking than that of Spitzer by miles. Besides these two enemies the one that disturbed me the most was Ken Langone, the chairman and CEO of Inverned Associates (and the man who founded Home Depot) who was also involved as the subject of Spitzer’s efforts to nail corrupt business CEOs. He is interviewed and his own words reveal his deep hatred of Spitzer. He says once, “My faith teachers me that I must forgive but I will never forgive Eliot Spitzer.” After Spitzer was caught and resigned Langone said “I guess the old man upstairs was awake and Spitzer got what he had coming!” He and Greenburg told Spitzer that they would bring him down! There is no proof that they directly did this but there are a lot of smoking guns lying all over the place by the end of the story. These two guys just gave me the creeps. If these are the kind of people we gave billions of dollars to in order to save Wall Street firms in 2008 then I have grave doubts about the whole process! (I did have the doubts anyway but this film pushed me over the edge in terms of my assessment of how big the mess really was in New York.)
Rotten Tomatoes gives Client 9 a 91% rating, one of the highest a film will get. It deserves every bit of this positive review. Featuring interviews with Govenor Spitzer that are both gripping and sadly revealing there is one with his several of his enemies and one with one of the hookers, both of which make this much more than a fascinating tale. It is a first-rate character study that reveals why the political system is broken and why neither party can fix it without a recovery of virtue. The greater problem is not about sex or money but about greed, lust for power and avarice. The only solution to this problem will not be found in changing politicians but in draining the swamp. We will never drain the swamp until we get people of character in government. I was reminded of why this matters by the recent death of Senator Mark Hatfield, a man many despised but a man nonetheless admired, even by critics, for his character and integrity.