It seems fitting now that the nation’s financial landscape resembles Berlin circa 1945 that we ask what could have happened if Eliot Spitzer, a man whom I spent a considerable amount of time around during his time as New York’s attorney general, had not fallen from public grace for his moral failings.
He was, at least before he won the governorship of New York, Wall Street’s crusader: The man who looked at the damage done by the deregulation of the markets and was doing his best to rectify it. He was ambitious and hard-driving, more interested in trying to fundamentally change the DNA of how Wall Street worked than putting people in jail. As governor during this country’s mortgage crisis, he would have done his damndest to go after the problem months before anyone else. He would have been a vital ally for Sen. Barack Obama’s own calls for a systemic shift in how our banking and insurance industry operates. But that was not to be.
Spitzer was, and remains, a complicated man. While he, like Sen. John McCain, said he admired Teddy Roosevelt, it was the philosphy of Roosevelt’s cousin Franklin, whom Ellen Page in “Juno” called “the hot one…with polio” that Spitzer found his true foundation, the basis for his struggle to rectify what he saw as the wrongs of deregulation.
“In law school I was opposed to the Reagan Revolution, which was premised on a devolution of power to the states,” Spitzer told me one day, while I was reporting on him for The Atlantic. “I had this vision, this very classic New Deal vision, of federal agencies in Washington doing their job.”
Later, he went on to talk about what he called ” “the crisis of accountability.”
“It is government,” Spitzer said. “It is the media. It is the not-for-profit sector. It is the CIA. It is our religious denominations. If you think about it, over the last four or five years there is hardly an institution that has not somehow been affected by this crisis of accountability. It makes you wonder what happened … What we are going through right now is an effort to resuscitate these values, and we do it the same way we did it with street crime. We become intolerant of even petty offenses in an effort to restore the moral regime we all know that we should live by.”
By his own moral misdeeds Spitzer undid everything he fought for. In the midst of this crisis, he could have been the white knight, who recognized good from evil while offering up an intelligent, sound way of dealing with the crisis.
But now, at a time when Spitzer could have stood on the greatest stage, he is very much a man alone, confined to the shadows, far from the public eye.
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