Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Eliot Spitzer, Thug

It is more than tempting to avoid the Eliot Spitzer carnival. But before he goes it is worth remembering what makes him, and by extension a lot of politicians, so dangerous. And it has nothing to do with sex.

The Wall Street Journal editorial page has done the people of New York a giant favor by meticulously documenting Gov. Spitzer’s goonish behavior against the people of that state. Here (well before anyone who didn’t patronize it had heard of the Emperors Club) they describe his use of the state police to monitor, in order to intimidate, the leader of the New York State Senate. I’m somewhat inclined to give him a pass on that one; politics is a rough business, and Gov. Spitzer is thus just playing to form there.

But when he threatens to attack private citizens using the weapons he (like any high official in any system of government) uniquely controls, it is a different story. John C. Whitehead tells of defending AIG CEO Hank Greenberg in a previous piece in the Journal. (Mr. Spitzer had demanded his removal as CEO under the threat of indicting the company, even though who AIG's CEO is is really none of Mr. Spitzer's business.) Immediately after it appeared Mr. Spitzer, then the attorney general of New York, phoned him and told him that:

"Mr. Whitehead, it's now a war between us and you've fired the first shot. I will be coming after you. You will pay the price. This is only the beginning and you will pay dearly for what you have done. You will wish you had never written that letter."

When Tony Soprano talks that way we know what to call it. But Mr. Spitzer, by mesmerizing a lazy press with promises of “reform,” which (since “reform” invariably means changing election laws to give the press more influence at the bar of state and other kinds of citizens less) and constantly using leaks to give the press exclusive opportunities to slander people who haven’t even been indicted, apparently gets to be something else.

And Mr. Spitzer is not unique. During Bill Clinton’s career he was known to occasionally rely on the services of thuggish private investigators to intimidate his opponents, and undoubtedly much the same goes on among politicians of all stripes. The problem is not that Eliot Spitzer is a bad politician. The problem is that Eliot Spitzer is the sort of person politics attracts.



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