The fall of New York Governor Eliot Spitzer in 2008 provided a smorgasbord of Schadenfreude on which his many detractors were delighted to feast. Spitzer, who had reveled in busting a big prostitution ring in 2004, when he was the state’s showboating attorney general, was himself driven from office by a call-girl scandal in which he figured as “Client 9,” a man who paid thousands of dollars an hour to engage high-end “escorts”—and, more deliciously yet, kept his socks on while being serviced by them. Following the ritual farewell press conference with his humiliated wife by his side, Spitzer slunk off into shamed seclusion while his most famous sex rental, one Ashley Dupré, became a talk-show fixture, a MySpace sensation, and an “advice” columnist for the New York Post. What was not to love about all of this?
Well, it is hard to have much sympathy for Spitzer, a distastefully abrasive political climber. But Alex Gibney’s new documentary, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, does him—and us—the service of situating Spitzer’s transgressions within the sordid political context in which they occurred. It’s not a pretty picture.
Upon becoming attorney general in 1998, Spitzer announced a crusade against white-collar crime, especially as it was then rife, he claimed, on Wall Street. He boldly targeted bankers and traders and the previously untouchable solons of such firms as Merrill Lynch and American International Group (AIG—later recipient of huge Bush Administration bailouts). These were dangerous people to irritate, but Spitzer gloried in his new renown as the “Sheriff of Wall Street.” “My job,” he said, “is to change the system.” As if.
Moving on to the political cesspool of Albany to become governor in 2006, Spitzer, a liberal Democrat, immediately butted heads with the state’s silver-haired Senate Majority Leader, Joseph Bruno, a powerful Republican. At one point, in a scandal dubbed “Troopergate,” Spitzer engaged state police to keep records of Bruno’s comings and goings. Bruno was angered, but unintimidated. In Gibney’s film he says he told Spitzer to his face, “I been threatened by hoods and thugs all my life. You’re an amateur.”
Then began the fall. That same year, Spitzer started patronizing the Emperors Club, an online escort service that provided “the girlfriend experience”—classy prostitutes whose fees ranged up to $5500 a night. As he explains in the film, sitting uncomfortably through a Gibney interview, Spitzer turned to call girls as a preferable alternative to becoming involved in a romantic affair. He pre-paid for his assignations with money orders—more than $100,000-worth over the course of two years. His bank began to take notice, and, as required, reported the heavy activity on his account to the IRS. Soon the FBI moved in and set up wiretaps. Somehow, The New York Times got wind of the feds’ findings and went to press with them. Spitzer was nailed.
Gibney, who previously charted corporate corruption with Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, makes a persuasive case that government Republicans, in collusion with vengeful Wall Street titans (presumably not liberal Democrats), conspired to bring Spitzer down in the most embarrassing possible way. His antagonists are presented as fairly scary guys, especially former AIG boss Hank Greenberg, onetime New York Stock Exchange Director Kenneth Langone, and the flamboyant lobbyist and fixer Roger Stone (himself a devotee of strippers and swingers’ clubs). Gibney makes Spitzer seem prescient about the high-finance scammery that would soon lead to a national economic meltdown. And he brings in some unusual talking heads to provide commentary, to varying effect: Cecil Suwall, the giggly young CEO of the Emperors Club, is the film’s most winning presence; but hiring an actress to mouth the transcribed words of one of the company’s escorts—a Spitzer favorite called “Angelina” here—has a dodgy feel; and what he was thinking when he solicited the thoughts of Karen Finley, the erotic performance artist of the 1990s, is anybody’s guess.
The most pressing question the film elicits, though, is why the government should still be allowed to use anti-prostitution laws to harass citizens who are doing no one (or in Spitzer’s case, no one beyond themselves) any harm. Eliot Spitzer was never charged with any crime, but he was destroyed anyway. It’s hard to say how much he’ll be missed. (“He was gonna be our first Jewish president,” a friend muses wistfully.) But judging by his current embarrassing gig as a CNN talk-show host, missing is what he’ll continue to be from the cutthroat political action in which he once made his name—which is now, and probably forever, mud.
Kurt Loder is a writer, among other things, embedded in New York.
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