New York State's notorious resistance to efficient governance owes a lot to geography. The state is vast, by Eastern standards, and its cities are far-flung. Seen one way, it is a rural state, with a right-angled corridor of denser settlement and industry which more or less follows the course of the Hudson River and the Erie Canal, from Manhattan to Lake Erie. Imagine a backward, rotated L, or a mirror image of a long-division tableau. In recent decades, Buffalo, at one end, has suffered a steep decline, while New York City, at the other, has flourished, as though good fortune had flowed down along the L, draining Rochester, Syracuse, and Utica along the way. The capital, Albany, is at the joint of the L, and seems to benefit-thrive would be too strong a word - whichever way the fortune flows, but it is still remote, in the way of capitals, like Brasilia or Canberra, that were designed not to favor one constituency over another, except perhaps the one in residence. As such, Albany is the arbiter in New York's ceaseless upstate-downstate tug-of-war, which simultaneously pits rural Republicans against big-city liberals, and Rust Belt Democrats against supply-side suburbanites. The proliferation of cross-purposes and strange bedfellows makes for pernicious and complicated arbitrating. This is one (but far from the only) reason that Albany is home to what may be the most dysfunctional state government in the nation.
A year ago, Eliot Spitzer, the real-estate scion and crusading attorney general, won a lightly contested race for governor, against a Republican named John Faso, by promising to put an end to that dysfunction. Since then, Albany has in many ways become more dysfunctional than ever. The addition of an aggressive personality with an ambitious agenda has, perversely, gummed up the works. The acrimony between Spitzer and his enemies, born of scandal, policy disagreement, political desperation, tactical blundering, and personal animus, has all but stalled the workings of the government, or at least those which require the collaboration of the executive chamber and the Legislature.
The Governor's aides like to refer to "the Spitzer brand." Before his first year in office, Eliot Spitzer was a populist avenger, a media darling, a rising Democratic star, a progressive's Rudy Giuliani, a panacea-in-waiting, a front-runner in the first-Jewish-President race. Somehow, he's become an unpopular governor careering from mess to mess. Allegations that his office used the state police to smear Joseph Bruno for misusing state aircraft (an affair known as Troopergate), and a doomed proposal to issue driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, have compromised the brand. His head shot has appeared repeatedly in the Post over the words "DIRTY TRICKS." Lou Dobbs spent a month ridiculing him on CNN. The throngs of Wall Streeters who despised him for his yielding prosecutions when he was attorney general have been joined by scores of affronted political professionals, whose egos, customs, or survival instincts demand that they indulge their negative reactions to his way of doing things. Against Faso, he got sixty-nine per cent of the vote; a few weeks ago, a poll found that only twenty-five per cent would vote for him if an election were held today. The common perception - the dominant story line - is that Spitzer doesn't have the collaborative temperament or the tactical elasticity to be a governor. To his critics, who complained that he exploited the attorney general's office to gain the governor's mansion, he was too political to be a prosecutor and yet is now too prosecutorial to be a politician.
But amid all the rancor, the bad press, and the souring of his prospects, the Governor has kept at it, admitting little in the way of doubt or regret, and seeing the "pushback," as he and his circle describe it, as evidence of headway. He has continued to conduct whatever business he can, drawing on the ample power granted him by the office, while travelling around the state, announcing initiatives and presiding at groundbreakings, as though taking refuge in the expanse of his obligations and the far reaches of his domain. He has not spent a great deal of time in Albany, the epicenter of his troubles, availing himself of the state-owned air fleet - a source and symbol of geographic freedom and power (and of its occasional abuses). As the early astronauts observed, altitude and distance bring a certain cohesion into view.
'The enormity of this state, it's awesome," Spitzer said one afternoon in October, while passing over it in an airplane, on his way from Buffalo to LaGuardia Airport - an Albany-less trip along the L's hypotenuse. The plane, a twin-turboprop Beechcraft King Air, can seat eight passengers comfortably. Gray cloud cover around Lake Erie had given way to dear skies and sprawling inland vistas in high-autumn orange. "I think we're seeing the Finger Lakes right up here," Spitzer said, looking out his window. "Sometimes you can see the windmills." He unfolded a tattered highway map. 'I've had this in my briefcase going on nine years now. It's from back when I was driving myself around, campaigning for attorney general, in '97, '98." He pointed out where he thought we were (near Geneva), as well as where he'd been the day before (Albany, Potsdam, Camden), where he'd started in the morning (Syracuse, to speak at a conference of entrepreneurs), where he'd flown next (Buffalo, to make the first in a blitz of announcements of "City-by-City" upstate development projects), and where his family's farm was (on a crease in the map, in Columbia County). The map was dense with gubernatorial significance and opportunities for Spitzer to demonstrate a prodigious grasp of policy detail.
“I feel sometimes like I’m sinking into quicksand,” Spitzer says of life as governor. Photograph by Mary Ellen Mark.
Spitzer, who is forty-eight, has a prominent nose, chin, and forehead, a hard jawline, and deep-set eyes whose intensity can give the extremely mistaken impression that he wears eyeliner. When he smiles or gets angry, his jaw juts out, underbitishly. The vigor in his features and in his manner, and his lean frame, tend to inspire descriptions of a man tilting into the wind. On the flight, he was fidgety, in keeping with his reputation for impatience and hyperactivity, but he displayed an acuity for brisk small talk sports, kids, Bruce Springsteen. From the first time I'd met him, however, a month before, and in the course of a half-dozen interviews this fall, he strove to devote our conversations to the substance of governing, to assess his first and next year in terms of his accomplishments and goals. He had, it is true, got a lot done (especially by Albany standards) before the acrimony took hold. He had recently looked at his State of the State speech from last January and concluded that he'd accomplished three-quarters of what he'd hoped to do. He had reformed the budget process, the workers'-compensation system, and the financing of health care and education. Like politicians everywhere, he seemed frustrated that the media was so focussed on the tumult - that his message wasn't getting out. For months, the papers had been full of intricate accounts of political or legal maneuverings, many involving his deepening feud with Bruno. On the day of the Governor's flight from Buffalo, the Post ran a picture of Bruno and Spitzer at a memorial service for firefighters, in which Bruno is standing with his back to Spitzer, with the headline "BACK 'BURNER': JOE GIVES SPITZ THE TAIL END."
"The stuff with Bruno? That hasn't distracted me," Spitzer said. "Look, I know what this is. It's about nothing. This is an effort to distract us from governing. I'm not going to let that happen."
An anxious supporter of the Governor's had told me, when he heard I was going to see Spitzer, "Ask him, how does he learn." Spitzer is known to be a fast and thorough absorber of information. He remains the capable and diligent student he was in school. (His sister remembers him doing his homework with his tongue sticking out of the side of his mouth.) On television, he speaks in long, complex sentences and hews to a rigorous line of logic, and when you tell him things he remembers them. Learning would not seem to be an issue. But the supporter's question seemed to contain a note of 'Will he ever learn?" - as in, learn when to let an opponent take around, when not to antagonize people, when not to act as though he needed to prove that he's the smartest man in the room.
"How do I learn? I call people," Spitzer told me. Recently, he had been soliciting counsel from an array of eminences (Bill Clinton, Robert Rubin, Jerry Speyer) and old Albany hands. But when I asked him what was the best advice he'd received so far, he said, "Ignore most of the advice we're giving you." He went on, "What I have found is that the toughest decisions and the right answers to those tough decisions are still the ones that you come to when you just sit down and you say, 'O.K., what are we trying to do? What are the right moral values to guide it?' Ignore all the politics. Ignore the screaming and shouting."
He certainly put that principle to work on his driver's-license initiative. On September 21st, Spitzer decreed that any immigrant here illegally be given the right to get a New York State driver's license. An applicant would have to produce a foreign passport (in lieu of a Social Security card), the legitimacy of which would be verified by state-of-the art technology. Eight other states had similar policies. In Spitzer's view, since the federal government had failed to deal with the influx of immigrants, the responsibility fell to the states. With an estimated million undocumented aliens in New York, he reasoned, it would be best to get them licensed. The roads would be safer, and immigrants' vital information would be added to the Department of Motor Vehicles database, an essential investigative tool for law enforcement.
During his campaign, Spitzer had promised to make this change, but it seemed to take everyone by surprise. He
had not briefed the Legislature, arguing, technically correctly, that the D.M.V. is the executive chamber's responsibility. In the early days, it hardly seemed controversial. "Even Joe Bruno, of all people" - as Spitzer put it on NY1 - said that he could see the merits of it at first, as did the editorial boards of most of the newspapers in the state.
A week later, Mayor Bloomberg raised questions about the plan, citing worries that it would diminish a license's value. In a characteristic display of excessive rhetorical aggression, Spitzer responded, "He is wrong at every level - dead wrong, factually wrong, legally wrong, morally wrong, ethically wrong," at which point the story moved to the fore. In Buffalo, where I’d watched him make the City-by-City announcement, the driver's license issue dominated the media scrums. Spitzer seemed to be relishing the opportunity to re-state the virtues of his proposal (bringing undocumented aliens "out of the shadows"), resolute in the idea that sound logic--or his logic, at least would prevail.
Already, though, the plan was gathering third-rail heat. Spitzer's opponents had begun to frame it as a terrorism issue. James Tedisco, the minority leader in the Republican Assembly - to whom Spitzer had said, earlier in the year, "I'm a fucking steamroller, and I'll roll over you" - declared, "Osama bin Laden is somewhere in a cave with his den of thieves and terrorists, and he's probably sabering the cork on some champagne right now, saying, 'Hey, that governor's really assisting us."
On the flight back from Buffalo to the city, I asked Spitzer if he'd had any doubts about his tactics or his timing-why take on such a volatile issue when he was already weakened by Troopergate? "Nah!" he said. I later learned that there had been some debate within his administration, but in the end Spitzer had decided that, as he put it, "If its right, it's right. We’d done the work, let's move on it."
After a turbulent descent over northern New Jersey - another opportunity for a display of unflappability - we flew alongside Manhattan, down the Hudson River, past the West Side rail yards, for which the state was collecting development proposals, and the construction site at Ground Zero, another state project, and he gave upbeat mini-dissertations on the status of each. Over Brooklyn, I asked him whether he ever thought, surveying the state from the air, "Mine, all mine."
"Yeah, that's just what I think," he said.
These days, the state is teeming with political gurus, of both the paid and the armchair varieties, who can offer up the kind of metaphorical advice that a man as literal-minded as Spitzer may have trouble integrating into his grand strategy or his daily life. A dose friend suggested that he bring more "poetry" to governing. When I mentioned this one day to Spitzer, who had just announced the reopening of a long-moribund airfield in Orange County, he said, 'Well, I'm not sure if the poetry is the speech, or if the poetry is the reality that suddenly Stewart Airport is open and transportation from there will permit business to thrive in the Hudson Valley." When he speaks about his goals and beliefs, he cites Alexander Hamilton, Theodore Roosevelt, and Al Smith, who to his mind represent the three pillars of progressivism: "My job is to invest, the way Hamilton did; make sure the rules are enforced, the way T.R. did; and make sure everyone has a chance to play by those rules, which is what Al Smith stood for."
Spitzer’s agenda, broadly and loftily speaking, is to make the workings of Albany more transparent: to disentangle the corrosive influence of the special interests and to combat, if not eliminate, the nest-feathering that flourishes in the dark. Campaign-finance reform is an essential part of this. More specifically, he aims to overhaul the state's health and education systems, streamline local governments, and resuscitate the upstate economy. Avi Schick, a senior economic-development official in the administration, told me, "Eliot wants to transform the government. But it's hard to encapsulate this in a sound bite or to see the results immediately. It's hard to explain to people how competence affects their lives." Spitzer's progressivism, distilled a certain way, is a will to competence, which raises the question of whether competence can be willed.
Bruce Gyory, a longtime Albany lobbyist, lawyer, and amateur historian, told me, on the day before he was hired to be a special aide to the Governor, "I see Spitzer as a young Koufax." Early on, Sandy Koufax had great stuff but was inconsistent, until he was advised to loosen his grip on the ball. "If Spitzer learns to relax his grip a little, trust his stuff, he'll be fine. Get ahead of the hitters." ("I hope Bruce has better stuff than that," Spitzer remarked, when I repeated it to him.)
Some of the comparisons aren't as flattering. An Albanian who is in Spitzer's party but no longer in his camp compared the Governor to an alcoholic who can't be helped until he acknowledges that he has a problem. Another assessed what he felt were Spitzer's shortcomings in graphic terms: "Spitzer lunges. He seems not to be a person of strategy. He slipped on a banana peel, or six, and once down has thrashed around."
Gyory is a font of analogies. "Be General Grant--even if everyone wants Robert E. Lee and cavalry charges," he said. "Politics is like trench warfare. Defense wins. We don't have the political equivalent of a tank that lets you roll over the opposition. The question for Spitzer is, can he develop the tank?"
Spitzer is a lawyer, a logician, a tactician, a policy fanatic, but not a deep thinker or a self-doubter. He is not inclined toward wistfulness or wonder, which is not to say that he isn't caring or curious. It is often said by those who know him, and by Spitzer himself, that what you see is what you get. When I first met him, he said, with some disdain, "You going to write about my childhood?" A month later, he said, "Let me ask you: is my life much more boring than people presume? And don't you think most lives are?"
He's didactic. He says "Look" a lot. He's a world-class square, but he can be funny and good-natured. His humor relies on mockery, of others and of himself; although his self-deprecations often end in self-aggrandizement. His stock "stupid story about missing class"" as he called it - about going back to Harvard Law School and being ribbed by two professors for not having ever gone to their lectures-ended with the punch line "Yeah, but has it hurt my career?" The most commonly heard criticism of him, which has dogged him at least since his days as attorney general, is that he is a bully, which encompasses not just professional aggression but also what many regard as a preening rectitude and a tendency toward intellectual arrogance.
He understands that his idiosyncrasies, his hyperachiever habits, are both salutary and worthy of ribbing. When you are followed around every day by a mob of reporters and aides, your mannerisms, however sincere, can soon seem like affectations. Squareness can come off as shtick He wears only white button-down shirts, which he buys at Brooks Brothers. He bought a blue one once: "It was
unnerving. Never wore it." He gets up at five in the morning to jog, he's known for it, and wants you to know it, but if it's a pose it's a hard-earned one. His first thought upon waking each day, he says, is a wish for two more hours' sleep.
He comes from a family of achievers. His father, Bernard, and his mother, Anne, both the children of Jewish immigrants, grew up in cold-water flats on the Lower East Side. Bernard built a half-billion-dollar real-estate empire, consisting primarily of residential apartment buildings in Manhattan. Eliot, born in 1959, is the youngest of three children; his sister, the eldest, is a lawyer, and his brother is a neurosurgeon. The Spitzer clan is eccentric only in its heightened devotion to attainment and argument. On the spectrum of rich-kid gumption, he and his siblings are at the extreme end. They grew up in the Fieldston section of Riverdale, a well-to-do corner of the Bronx, where Eliot attended Horace Mann, a private school. It can seem churlish to call attention to a man's privileged background, unless that man, either out of embarrassment or political expediency, takes pains to gloss over it. Spitzer sometimes makes more of his outer-borough credentials than any son of Riverdale should. During a dispute at a conference several years ago, the California attorney general challenged him to a fight, saying, "Let's go - I'm from Oakland," to which Spitzer replied, "Come on – I’m from the Bronx!”
The Spitzer family dinner table has become legendary. Bernie Spitzer was a demanding father, and he expected his children to come to supper with a topic for debate and a well-researched argument. "Conversation was a competitive sport," William Taylor, Spitzer's roommate at Princeton and a co-founder of the magazine Fast Company, told me. Taylor has said that he prepared harder for those dinners than he did for any of his classes. "Bernie Spitzer in his prime was both thrilling and terrifying," he said. It was not an emotionally indulgent household, or a religious one. (The potential first Jewish President was not bar mitzvahed.)
At Princeton, Spitzer cultivated a friendship with the president, William Bowen. An avid tennis player, Spitzer once tried to play squash with Bowen, and thought, being young and fit, that he'd lick him, but Bowen ran him all over the court. "He gave me a lesson in tactics over strength," he told me, apparently oblivious of the metaphorical application of his words to his Albany travails. As a sophomore, he won, precociously, the presidency of the student government, but he has always claimed that he was not interested in politics - just policy. He attended Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, then Harvard Law, where he made the Law Review and became, with his dose friend Cliff Sloan, who is now the publisher of Slate, an acolyte of Alan Dershowitz. Cliffeliot, as the duo was known, assisted Dershowitz in his defense of Claus von Billow, the socialite who had been accused of the attempted murder of his wife (he was eventually acquitted). In the film about that case, "Reversal of Fortune," Cliffeliot became a team featuring a female duo played by Felicity Huff-man and Annabella Sciorra.
While at Harvard, Spitzer met Silda Wall, a fellow-student, on a ski trip to Vermont. Wall was from North Carolina and had recently been divorced, after a brief marriage to another law student. She and Spitzer married three years later, in 1987. They have three daughters, age twelve to seventeen. Silda worked for many years as a corporate lawyer at Skadden, Arps, then, with some misgivings, gave up her practice to look after the family and her husband's political career. She brings a certain politesse to Team Spitzer. When I met her, she was resolutely composed and on message, except perhaps when talking about the family's midsummer hike up Mt. Marcy, the state's tallest peak. They ran out of water and, as she said, "we had not really thought out the food piece of this." They live in one of Bernard Spitzer's buildings, on Fifth Avenue at Seventy-ninth Street, a half block from the home of Michael Bloomberg, in an enclave of what you might call self-capitalized crossover political talent.
For fourteen years, Spitzer went back and forth between public service and private practice. He was a clerk to a federal district-court judge, Robert Sweet, and an assistant district attorney in Manhattan, where he helped bust up Gambino control of garment-industry trucking (Spitzer established a fake sewing shop in Chinatown, as a front). In 1994, he ran for attorney general but came in last among the Democrats, then, spent the next several years travelling around the state in a minivan, cultivating support for another run.
Perhaps the most significant support came from his family. The 1994 campaign had been funded in large part by a $4.3million bank loan that Spitzer took out, using as collateral some apartments that he owned; he told the press that he was servicing the loan with his own income. In 1998, a few days before Election Day, in a nasty race with the incumbent, Dennis Vacco, he admitted that he had been paying off the bank with a loan his father had given him on generous terms. In effect, he'd received a $4.3-million campaign donation from his father, which is well in excess of family donation limits, and lied about it. (The Board of Elections declined to investigate.) Michael Goodwin, a columnist at the News, asked Spitzer why he'd lied, and Spitzer told him, according to Goodwin, "I had to" - a phrase that Spitzer's detractors have lorded over him ever since, as a kind of shorthand for a streak of dishonesty and hypocrisy. (Spitzer says that he doesn't remember any such conversation.) Nonetheless, after a hotly contested recount, Spitzer won.
Spitzer’s tenure as a state attorney general maybe the most heavily chronicled of any in America's history. He reimagined the office, inserting it into the void left by a general regulatory retreat by the federal government. He regarded his activism as a logical and just extension of a new states'-rights movement, which had been conceived as an attempt to roll back oversight and advance a conservative, laissez-faire agenda, but which Spitzer interpreted as an invitation to state-led intercession and prosecutorially mandated policy change. With great gusto, he went after big polluters, pharmaceutical companies, gun manufacturers, and, most notably, the financial industry, where various harmful and fraudulent practices had taken root - insincere equity research, shady market timing, bid rigging. As many saw it, Spitzer's modus operandi was to build a case against his targets, then push the most egregious allegations in the media, which put unbearable public pressure on the targets to settle. And settle they almost invariably did. Spitzer earned an impressive array of scalps, admirers, headlines, and plaudits for reform, as well as a coterie of powerful enemies, whose indignation toward his media manipulations, disproportionate tactics, and occasionally shallow understanding of their businesses tended to be drowned out by the widespread public disgust engendered by their greed.
Brooke Masters, in "Spoiling for a Fight," her 2006 biography of Spitzer, meticulously recapitulates each prosecution - the regulatory turf battles, the legal dekes and dodges, the mutating rationales - creating a portrait of a righteous and far from infallible crusader employing every tactical advantage that his office makes available to him. He does not always come off well. (All the same, his parents have the book on the coffee table at their house in Rye.) His detractors tend to complain that the press created Eliot Spitzer -that the Sheriff of Wall Street, to use one moniker, was a fantasy of the liberal, wealth-resenting media. And so they take some satisfaction in the fact that the pendulum seems to have swung back on him, with so much force that you'd think it was spring-loaded.
“Day One, everything changes," Spitzer pronounced during his campaign for governor, as though he'd be taking over the Knicks, instead of one cog in a sprawling and intransigent political mechanism. The extent to which he has delivered (or, more fairly, will be able to deliver) on this promise depends on whom you talk to and what your definition of "change" is. As one lobbyist told me, "Day One, everything changes. Day Three Hundred, nothing moves."
Tracking how Spitzer got into this mess requires forbearance in the face of squalid statehouse wranglings. The feints and stalemates -combining arid political gamesmanship with fits of pique worthy of "Mean Girls"-tie into a web of purpose and allegiance that can be hopelessly complex, but it helps to know a couple of things.
First, 2008 is an election year. The Republicans have a thin margin in the State Senate - which they have controlled for all but one of the past sixty-nine years - with seats in vulnerable, Democratic trending districts. The Democrats have held the majority in the Assembly since 1975. If the Republicans lose the Senate, the Democrats will have a monopoly in the state government, and the power to gerrymander districts in their favor, at the congressional as well as the state level. Also, Joe Bruno would no longer be majority leader. The Republicans, therefore, are desperate, and in their desperation they have apparently settled on a sand-in-the- gears strategy. It is not in their interest to help make Spitzer look good. They seem to have resolved to depict him as angry and unstable. ("The press somehow confuses intensity with anger," Bill Taylor, his old roommate, told me. "I see him as a happy warrior.") The extent to which they can hurt him, while making it look as though he is hurting himself - and the state - will determine the survival of their party. To float an analogy that they would not embrace: their predicament is not unlike that of the Sunnis in Iraq.
Second, the entrenched Democrats are uneasy, too. Spitzer has made them so, both in his challenge to the status quo and in his mishandling of his relations with them. The political system in Albany favors stasis. The name of the game, of course, is the preservation of power, which means that whoever has it will rig the game to keep it. Bruno and Sheldon Silver, the speaker of the Assembly, wield immense power over their conferences; they effectively decide if and when a bill comes to the floor and then tell everyone how to vote. They dole out what are known as "lulus," or payments to legislators for extra duties that can be, let's say, undemanding. They also disburse their party's campaign funds, seeing to it that incumbents win more than ninety-five per cent of their races. The institutions with the wherewithal to provide the money are the oft-maligned but never curtailed special interests. The leaders excel at harnessing all these stakeholders. In particular, Silver, who represents lower Manhattan, is determinedly stubborn and patient. His modest manner disguises a canny parliamentary style. The contingencies can get so intricate and self-annulling that very little gets done.
Spitzer's first hostile act as governora gentle one, by Spitzer standards-occurred in his inaugural speech. "Like Rip Van Winkle," he pronounced, "New York has slept through much of the past decade while the rest of the world has passed us by." The remark, evocative and accurate as it may have been, struck many present as indecorous, disrespectful not only of George Pataki, his predecessor, who was in attendance, but of Bruno and Silver, the presumably somnambulant collaborators, who were seated right behind Spirzer. "That was a cheap shot," Jack McEneny, a Democratic assemblyman, told me. "Save it for the Bronx Democratic dinner." Of course, comportment was not high on Spitzer's priority list. To break the stagnant culture of Albany, he intended to do away with the rhetoric, as well as the practice, of accommodation. He would relish the disjointing of noses.
"Any controversies largely come down to this once-in-a-lifetime effort to break the culture," a senior aide told me, meaning not just that of the legislators but also that of their complements: the Albany press, the union leadership, the executive directors of the state agencies. "You teach people lessons and force people to do it a different way."
The disdain that Spitzer and his aides had for the niceties of the capitol caused early offense. The legislative staffs complained that Spitzer's team didn't know their names or titles. Deference had been replaced by indifference. "It makes no sense to squander good will when it's there for free," one legislator said. "The problem is arrogance." Spitzer is fond of saying that politics is like a sporting contest: you go out, play hard, and shake hands when it's over. He cites Theodore Roosevelt's invocation of "the arena." Of course, for most of his colleagues, politics is not a game but a livelihood. 'Tip O'Neill said all politics is local," McEneny said. "In Albany, I say, all politics is personal."
Pete Grannis, a former assemblyman from Manhattan who now heads Spitzer's Department of Environmental Conservation, told me, "The leaders, by design or fatigue, have devolved into accommodation mode. Pataki sort of wore out." The legislators, he explained, "have a very parochial focus on survival. And fundraising is the third rail. I told the Governor, The Legislature is like your in-laws. You're stuck with them."
Right away, Spitzer got into a fight with the Democrats over the appointment of a successor to Alan Hevesi, the state comptroller, who had been forced to resign after pleading guilty to using state employees as chauffeurs for his ailing wife. The Legislature was empowered to choose a successor. Spitzer wanted someone he deemed qualified, rather than a machine hire. But Silver prevailed, choosing one of his own assemblymen, Thomas DiNapoli, and Spitzer, furious, began paying recriminatory visits to the districts of some Democratic legislators who had voted with Silver (and who had supported Spitzer's own campaign), questioning their integrity as well as their standing come primary time. 'The temper tantrum that occurred after the DiNapoli affair did almost irreparable harm to the relationship between the Governor and the Democrats in the Legislature," McEneny said. 'There were a lot of hurt feelings."
There are people on Spitzer's team who consider the DiNapoli ruckus to have been one of their finest hours. It is hard for them to see how anybody could object to their insisting on competence. Spitzer, though, seems to realize that it was at least a short-term tactical error. "Let's face it - it was not a good beginning for my relationship with the Legislature," he told me. "I may have had the moral high ground, but having the moral high ground didn't help with Albany relations."
Meanwhile, Spitzer was working to overthrow the Republican majority in the Senate. The Republicans' margin has been slipping, and a few of its senior members, from districts that otherwise lean Democratic, are in their mid-seventies. Historical inevitability hangs over Bruno, a former boxer who is seventy-eight years old and in his sixteenth term in the State Senate, as does a federal investigation into a consulting business that he runs out of his home. (He has denied any wrongdoing.)
Spitzer sought to hasten things. He or his staff made overtures to several Republican legislators, offering them jobs in his administration, which would come with higher salaries and better pensions, if they gave up their seats. One Long Island Republican signed on to be his homeland-security chief, and Spitzer successfully campaigned for a Democrat to replace him. This narrowed the Republican majority - and Brands hold on power-to two seats. Such incursions have long been all but proscribed in Albany, Bruno told me that Spitzer had been "bribing several of my members" and "dishonest." Once again, however, it was difficult for Spitzer and his aides to understand how, on the merits, there could be anything wrong with going after the opposition party.
Never one to hold his tongue, Bruno began publicly disparaging Spitzer, calling him a rich spoiled brat and a bully. Spitzer, more measured in public, slipped up in private, as when, according to one person familiar with the exchange, he said to a legislator, in the course of calling attention to his own respect for decorum, "I could have called Bruno a senile piece of shit, but I never did." Amid these squalls, the two men, with Silver, were trying to forge a budget deal. Early on, Spitzer had managed to pass some bills that Bruno had long advocated anyway, Spitzer's job, as Bruno saw it, had been to "roll" Silver. But then Spitzer, in an attempt to cut medical spending, took on 1199 S.E.I.U., the giant health-care-workers union, which is a longtime kingmaker and one of the Senate Republicans' major backers. (Big unions in bed with the Republicans? Only in New York, kids, only in New York.) "We gored the ox of the patron of the Senate," as one aide put it. The union spent almost five million dollars - an extraordinary amount - on television advertisements attacking Spitzer, prompting him to counter with an ad blitz underwritten with his leftover campaign funds and five hundred thousand dollars of his own money. Still, for the first time, his poll numbers started to fall.
To some astonishment, the three men managed to come to an agreement on a budget by the April 1st deadline, but they did so in a closed-door session that gave rise to bitter complaints that Spitzer had condoned and participated in the kind of secrecy that he had promised to eliminate. What's more, he had compromised on several big items, including Medicaid spending and school funding, for which he was also criticized.
But this was just a prelude to the most insidious diversion from what the professionals like to call the business of governing: Troopergate, a.k.a. Choppergate, the Dirty Tricks Scandal, Eliot Mess, or, to some of Spitzer's team, "the recent unpleasantness." It has given rise to a set of opposing interpretations, the merits of which are still contested. What is uncontested is that it has been devastating to Eliot Spitzer.
Being on the receiving end of prosecutorial curiosity has exposed Spitzer to the kind of public rush to judgment that, as attorney general, he used to exploit, and he has handled it with the kind of cautious evasion that he used to deplore.
Troopergate, judging from subsequent investigations, began last spring with an inquiry, from several newspapers, into a fund-raising trip that Spitzer had made to California. The papers wanted to know whether he had flown on the state plane. The Governor and the leaders are allowed to use the plane and two state helicopters if the purpose of the trip is state business, but using them for personal or fund-raising purposes is a breach, albeit a time-honored one. (Mario Cuomo, for example, had an Air Cuomo scandal, involving numerous flights that his wife and kids took when he was governor.) Spitzer hadn't used the plane on that trip, but Darren Dopp, his communications director, decided to look at additional flights, including those made by the lieutenant governor, David Paterson, and Joseph Bruno, because, he told investigators, of continued interest from reporters, which he anticipated would lead to follow-up Freedom of Information requests. He didn't have the kind of information about Bruno's day-by-day schedule and appointments that he did about Spitzer's and Paterson's, so Dopp - and here's the rub-asked the state police to collect whatever they had. So, rather than just pulling records, they were, in some cases, creating them retroactively and, at the same time, learning a lot about what Bruno was up to.
The police delivered reports to Dopp that suggested that Brands flights might be improper, if not necessarily illegal. For example, there was an overnight trip, with a fund-raiser in the evening and a bit of state business in the morning, requiring separate round-trip helicopter flights (at thousands of dollars a flight). Dopp took the information to Spitzer and top members of his staff, and they decided to sit on it as Spitzer and his staff knew, the laws governing the use of the plane were lax. But then James Odato, a reporter at the Albany Times Union, made a Freedom of Information request for the travel records, and Dopp, again after consulting with Spitzer and his top staff, furnished the information to Odato.
It isn't dear to what extent Odato's inquiry was self-generated. Odato had done stories on government travel before, but e-mails released by investigators suggest that Dopp may have been shopping the story around. It's hard not to suspect, anyway, that Dopp was looking to hurt Bruno, and that he wouldn't have done so without his boss's blessing. Whether that constituted "a desire to run state government as a dictatorship," as Bruno would later assert, or merely an instance of hardball politics is now a matter of interpretation. (It could be both.) Nonetheless, the plan, if it was one, backfired. It tarnished Spitzer's image, among the many citizens who had not yet questioned it, as an upright avatar of fair play, and transformed Bruno from the heavy into the victim.
When the Times Union story about Bruno's trips ran, on July 1st, Bruno reared up. "I told the Governor directly I have dealt with bullies and rogues and thugs most of my life, O.K.?" he said. 'I grew up in the toughest part of Glens Falls, next to the boxcars, where kids would come up to you when you weighed ninety pounds and they weighed a hundred and twenty and just punch you right in the mouth just because you were Italian, O.K.?... So swing away." (Glens Falls isn't the Bronx, but it would have to do.) Within days, Bruno managed to alchemize the allegations into a story about a surveillance campaign and an abuse of power.
Andrew Cuomo, Spitzer's successor in the attorney general's office - a fellow-Democrat but no dear friend - opened an investigation. Spitzer's lawyers, taking a cautious legal stance, and perhaps worried that Cuomo was out to get them, decided not to let Spitzer’s staffers talk to Cuomo's investigators. Their meagre cooperation - Spitzer subsequently said they had "fully cooperated" - seemed to harden Cuomo's stance. (Cuomo, out of both temperament and ambition, seems to have modelled his approach to state prosecuting on Spitzer's.)
Cuomo issued his report after three weeks, and it was harsh. Although it absolved the Spitzer team of any illegality, it excoriated them for essentially deploying the state police in a political hit. Dopp was put on unpaid leave (he has since gone to work at a lobbying firm), and Spitzer published a self-flagellating Op-Ed piece in the Times, "An Apology from Albany," in which he said, "What members of my administration did was wrong - no ifs, ands or buts." Still, he had said that the mistakes were his staff's, and that he himself had known nothing about any attempt to smear Bruno.
Since then, Troopergate has settled into a tense legal standoff involving unanswered subpoenas and claims of executive privilege. The Albany County district attorney took up the case, as did the Commission of Public Integrity and the Senate. The Albany D.A.'s report, released in September-on the same day that Spitzer announced his driver's-license initiative-was mild enough in its conclusions to prompt Bruno to dismiss it as a whitewash. The Republicans, and the majority of New Yorkers polled, want Spitzer to testify under oath about who knew and did what when, but Spitzer has yet to do so because, he says, he hasn't been asked to: "I'd love to. Wish I had when this first came up." He regards the case as "a ridiculous detour," the aftermath of which may have been handled poorly, at least to judge by the results. When l asked him, for example, if it was a mistake for his lawyers not to have allowed his aides to talk to Cuomo, he said, "It certainly didn't play out wisely. No question about that."
During the summer, in the absence of any actual legislative work, the saga occasionally turned surreal. There was an improbably sourced but entertaining report in the Post that Spitzer aides were holding secret meetings in black Town Cars, riding around the outskirts of Albany, to avoid using e-mail or the phone. One night, an anonymous caller left a threatening recorded message for Spitzer's father, who is eighty-three and suffering from Parkinson's. Referring to the old campaign-finance allegations, the caller said, in part, "You will be arrested and brought to Albany. And there is not a goddam thing your phony, psycho, piece-of-shit son can do about it." A private investigator traced the call to Roger Stone, a Republican political consultant and former Lee Atwater associate who had been hired by the Senate Republicans. Stone denied making the call and cited as an alibi his attendance at the play "Frost! Nixon." (Stone got his start working for Nixon, and appeared in the New York Observer after the call, showing off a Nixon tattoo between his shoulder blades.) But then it emerged that he'd been at the play on a different night. He still denies making the call, claiming that the voice in the message is that of an impersonator. "It was shocking for two reasons," Spitzer told me. "One, that they would do it. And, two, how bizarrely obvious they were in what they did." He added, "Imagine if I had done that."
In a way, Troopergate has become a sort of Rorschach test: each constituency sees in it what it wants to see. For the Spitzer team, it's both no big deal and a symbol of monumental pushback. For the Republicans, it's both a dastardly conspiracy to destroy them and a cudgel for their self-preservation. For the press, if s the best evidence yet of incompatibility, and a source of new scoops. As a veteran of bygone Albany wars explained to me, "Eliot's gotten down in the mud with these guys, and they know how to fight in the mud. They're not there because they're nice guys. They're there because they're great tactical politicians."
As for Cuomo, he may as well have announced his candidacy for governor in 2010. Cuomo, the son of the former governor Mario Cuomo, who was a Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Clinton Administration, ran unsuccessfully for governor five years ago. It can be dangerous to ascribe envy or covetousness to a man without being able to know his mind, but people do so to Cuomo all the time; they also surmise that it rankled him that Spitzer declined to endorse him in the attorney general's race until after the primary. As an Albany lobbyist told me, “We all expected Cuomo to do something like this, but thought he'd maybe wait two and a half years."
In October, while on the plane with Spitzer, I asked him whether he still talked to Cuomo.
"Of course. He's my lawyer," he said, with a mischievous grin. I asked if their conversations were therefore privileged. "Yes, even the expletives are privileged," he said.
"That was a joke," Spitzer's aide said.
"No, it wasn't," Spitzer said.
One afternoon in October, I went to see Bruno, at the dedication of a new conference center on the East Campus of SUNY Albany, across the river from the capitol. Bruno's car pulled up to the curb, and as he gingerly emerged from the front passenger seat a TV cameraman, breaking away from the pack, hustled over. "Tell him to get out of my face," Bruno growled, and the cameraman scurried off, trailing apologies.
Bruno, typically hale, could hardly walk; he had hurt his hip over the weekend, climbing onto a tractor. The pain, as well as the indignity, had him in a sour mood. He was wearing as fine a suit as seen in Albany. We made our way to a conference room and sat down to talk about Eliot Spitzer. "Everywhere you go, this man does and says what suits him," he said. "He operates by two standards, one for him and one for everybody else." Bruno said, as he often does, "He doesn't have the right temperament to be governor of a state as complicated as New York"
Bruno grew up poor in Glens Falls, one of eight children of Italian immigrants, and served as an infantryman in the Korean War. Afterward, he started a telephone-equipment company, which he sold in 1990. He now lives on a firm in Rensselaer County, where he and his wife raise Thoroughbreds. Every summer, Bruno, along with Senate colleagues and staffers, decamps to Saratoga, where he presides like a kind of feudal lord.
When I asked him about Spitzer and Troopergate, Bruno asked me, "What was he trying to do, do you think?"
"He was trying to take you out?" I ventured.
"No, he wasn't trying to take me out. He was trying to destroy my life!"
Bruno went on, "He is the biggest disappointment that I've had in thirty-one years of serving in political life, because I liked him on a personal level. He fooled me. And I'm pretty good with people, I have a good intuition with people. He fooled me, he hoodwinked me. And I'm embarrassed. He told me I was going to be his partner Were going to get all kinds of productive and constructive things done. Shelly Silver's a problem; he's not my kind of guy. I’ll deal with Shelly." Bruno, who called Silver "the biggest wimp on this earth" (Silver has adopted a sticks-and-stones approach to Bruno's provocations), mentioned the series of bills that he had favored and that Spitzer had got passed. "Then what does he do? Now that he's on a roll, suddenly he's a hero, he worked miracles - what did he do? In my mind, his ego took over, his temperament took over, he started believing all his own press clips that he walked on water, that he was the savior of all mankind."
I asked him when they started yelling at each other. "When he said, I'm taking Bruno out as leader and we're taking over the majority,'" he replied.
He recalled an incident involving the Senate minority leader, Malcolm Smith ("the wimp that he is"), who had been echoing Spitzer's predictions of a Democratic takeover and whom Bruno had then pilloried. Spitzer called Bruno into his office. "So I went in," Bruno said. "He's sitting there like this." He pantomimed Spitzer's expression-chin thrust forward, eyes glaring-in a manner that made it clear that he does not like Spitzer's face. "Christ ... So I said something like 'What's up?' He comes out of his chair, practically” ‘I'll tell you! You abused Senator Smith on the floor of the chamber!’" He gave Spitzer a whiny voice. “'Malcolm Smith' - that's when I said, 'Malcolm Smith's got his head so far up your ass he can't even see straight.' He went crazy - screaming and shouting. Closest I’ve ever come to seeing something like that is a seven-year-old kid having a tantrum.
"He's a bully," Bruno said. "A spoiled brat having a tantrum because he's not getting his way."
As for the dishonesty part, he cited Spitzer's campaign-finance troubles, and the fact that Spitzer had gone after his members after he'd promised him that the two of them would be partners. "All this time he's cooking up how to bury me with the state police," he said. "If proven, it would have been criminal. I could've been in jail!"
What, then, would the Governor have to do in order for there to be peace between them? “We have to get him to just tell the truth, and I’ve given you instance after instance where he doesn't tell the truth," he said. "Sorry, I feel strongly about this, and the fact that I got a huge pain in my ass doesn't help. I should keep this pain all the time."
He got up and limped over to the reception, in a new annex whose construction owed a lot to funds corralled by Joe Bruno. Along the way, one of the caterers told him that he looked great, and he beamed.
Maligning Albany is a very old game," the novelist William Kennedy wrote in the introduction to "O Albany!" his 1983 book of essays about his home town. Nonetheless, he does not refrain from playing it. Calling the town "a pinnacle of porkhead bossism," he writes, “Wickedness has been our lot for more years than any man alive can remember."
Several things about Albany strike the downstate newcomer. Near the capitol building, at least, it seems to be one of the last American towns, outside the District of Columbia, where most of the men wear suits. It can feel like a city full of detectives and bodyguards. The capitol is a stunning Romanesque-Renaissance-Second Empire mashup, a monument to a more grandiose era of New York governorships, when the second floor's principal occupant routinely went on to big things on the national stage. It was completed under Teddy Roosevelt, at a cost of twenty-five million dollars, and was widely considered to be a boondoggle. The cavernous waiting room outside the executive chamber is known as the War Room; the builders ran out of money to put up a tower but built a vaulted ceiling that was painted with bloody images of hand-to-hand combat through the ages, which seem to suit the place. Across the street from the capitol is Empire Plaza, also known as Rockefeller's Folly, a sprawling waste of modernist architecture that reflects a period of gubernatorial supreme command. Beneath it run a series of tunnels and concourses connecting the various government buildings, and from January to June, when the Legislature is in session and the budget is in play, the political professionals take to the catacombs, a race of disingenuous horse-trading troglodytes haunting the fast-food pavilions.
When I was in Albany, earlier this fall, the legislators had returned to town for a special session. After they'd dispersed at the end of the regular session, in June, with work undone, Spitzer had gone on a kind of taunting tour of the members' districts, where he delivered a PowerPoint presentation whose theme was "Where's Waldo?" Weeks later, he, Bruno, and Silver reached a tentative agreement on a raft of big initiatives, each dear to one man or the other. (For Spitzer, it was campaign-finance reform; for Bruno, it was Mayor Bloomberg's congestion-pricing plan; for both Bruno and Silver, it was property-tax relief for seniors and a pay raise for legislators.) The special session would not include a debate or a vote on any of these initiatives; instead, the Senate Republicans wanted to make a stand on the driver's-license issue. On Monday afternoon, a bell rang feebly throughout the halls of the capitol, summoning the senators to their chamber. They convened at 3 P.M. - a starting time fit for a session musician. The Republicans wandering in and out of the Senate chamber were fairly exuberant at the ammunition Spitzer had given them. As Fredric Dicker, the Post's longtime Albany editor and the press corps's most persistent Spitzer scourge, noted on his radio show the following morning, "It's been years since I've seen the kind of glee on the part of Republicans that we saw here yesterday."
The problem for Spitzer, and for the citizens of New York, is that the actual substance of state governance (the policy) and the application of it (the politics) are numbing. Health-care-reimbursement formulas, county-government structure, development-agency debt structure: these are not the things that capture a citizen's — or an editor's — imagination. One of the advantages to having them disputed and decided in an arcane company town, a hundred and sixty miles from the state's media center, is that voters don't need to muddle their minds with the details. A disadvantage is that all manner of fainthearted, small-minded, cynical, greedy transactions occur out of sight. Most of the legislators and their staffs live in Albany during the session, owing to its distance from their home districts, which engenders a hothouse atmosphere, reflected in what Spitzer one afternoon called the Bear Mountain Bridge Rule, a precept named for a Hudson River crossing an hour north of Manhattan: what goes on north of the Bear Mountain Bridge stays north of the Bear Mountain Bridge. (Unfortunately for two legislators who got caught up in staffer sex scandals a few years ago--and fortunately for tabloid readers downstate — this imperative turned out to be a porous one.)
This winter, a contentious budget season looms. Wall Street, which furnishes up to twenty per cent of the state's tax revenues, has had a rough year, thanks to the subprime-mortgage mess, so unpopular cuts will make for spirited scapegoating. The legislative elections, next fall, will heighten the gamesmanship and the battle over public perception. In Albany, I met with Paul Francis, the budget director, who was attempting to reconcile the seeming impossibility and absolute necessity of getting a budget done. "One of the things I learned in business is the importance of having a coherent message about what you stand for," Francis said.
On the second floor of the capitol, I met with Dennis Whalen, Spitzer's deputy health secretary, who also served under Pataki. "Albany's acting how you would expect it to act: the organism is marshalling its antibodies," he said. Of the Spitzer agenda, he added, "Is it a virus? It may be the cure."
Bruce Gyory, Spitzer's new special aide, recently urged the Governor to read a biography he'd found, at the Strand, of Charles Evans Hughes, a governor who, a hundred years ago, went to Albany and, despite many early setbacks, managed to pass the Moreland Act, which he used to go after corruption. "Here's a guy who came in on a wave of reform. He challenged the status quo, and the status quo didn't like it. He ran into problems," Gyoiy told me. "It's so much easier to be a go-along, get-along governor than it is to confront." But, he added, "the power of the chief executive is the power to persuade. I have told him, the operative word in bully pulpit is 'pulpit.'"
Al Smith, whom Spitzer often cites, was actually voted out after his first two years, but won again two years later, and went on to transform the office. But, like other New York governors who found their footing, he thrived. 'The notion that you're doomed if you don't get it done in your first year is an ahistorical analysis," Gyory said.
Executive-branch history is strewn with lousy first years. People often compare Spitzer with Rudy Giuliani, for his aggressive tenure as a prosecutor and for his combative, enemy-strewn governing style. But there are other useful analogues: Michael Bloomberg, whose billionaire's scorn for political ritual and collaborative capital in his first two years earned him abysmal public-approval ratings; Bill Clinton, whose ill-advised or poorly handled initiatives (gays in the military, health care) derailed his first-term agenda and handed Congress to the Republicans; and Teddy Roosevelt, another hard charger, whose confrontational ways as governor so infuriated the powers that be in New York that they had him drafted as President William McKinley's running mate, just to get rid of him.
Each instance casts Spitzer's prospects in a rosy light, predicting renewal and some measure of historical vindication. But there are counterexamples. In October, the Times summoned the ghost of William Sulzer, a first-year governor from Manhattan, who, in 1913, was impeached and removed from office, after too zealously attacking the corrupt Tammany Hall Democratic machine. Like Spitzer, Sulzer said, "I am a fighter," and tried to appeal directly to the voters, rather than to their representatives. "If I could tell you some things I know about Albany conditions, it would make you want to come out with a rope in your hands," Sulzer said. His disregard for the nuances laid him low.
Another analogue is President Bush, who is very different from Spitzer in most ways — temperament, ideology, fluency, firepower — but who also has the courage of his convictions, naysayers be damned. It is a comparison that Spitzer inadvertently invited, in an address he gave in August, two weeks after the release of the Cuomo report, at the Chautauqua Institution, in western New York. Spitzer invoked Reinhold Niebuhr, who "understood that the exercise of power can be shocking and, at times, corrupting. But he also understood that power is absolutely necessary to fight the battles that must be fought. The trick is to fight these battles with humility and constant introspection, knowing that there is no monopoly on virtue." He was talking about Bush, he emphasized, not himself: "President Bush didn't understand that humility has to be more than just a talking point," he said, before going on to enumerate his own accomplishments. It was a remarkable exercise in expiation by indirection.
In late October, Spitzer's press office sent out a release saying that Spitzer was preparing a major surprise announcement at an appearance at N.Y.U., on the driver's license issue. Might Spitzer be dropping the plan? Suggesting such a thing to the reporters who regularly cover him inspired a no-chance-in-hell double take. Still, by that point opposition had crescendoed. Lou Dobbs, on CNN, had been assailing Spitzer on a nightly basis. ("How about a spoiled rich-kid brat who is treating New York residents as if he thinks they're his rich father's tenants, instead of citizens?... He may be what he calls a steamroller, but I think he's a weak-kneed, spineless steamroller.") And county clerks around the state, the ones responsible for issuing driver's licenses, were threatening civil disobedience. Broader discontent had spread to his own party. “We're hoping for a change of direction," McEneny, one of the Assembly's recalcitrant Democrats, said. "It's getting real late."
It turns out, however, that the surprise was merely the announcement that Richard Clarke, the counterterrorism expert, had endorsed Spitzer’s plan. Afterward, I rode along with Spitzer and Rich Baum, the secretary to the Governor, on their way to a lunch with Brooklyn Democrats in Williamsburg. "Clarke was hugely important," Spitzer said. "He indisputably puts to rest the notion that at the security level this is not the right thing to do."
But it was too late. The plan's indisputability, in whatever platonic realm Spitzer had deemed it so, was very much in dispute in the arena.
Baum said, “We didn't make an emotional argument, because we didn't have an emotional argument. It's a cerebral issue."
"Every issue where we're a minority is a cerebral issue," Spitzer said to Baum.
I asked if they'd anticipated this much emotion.
“Remember that Monty Python skit? ‘Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition,’” Spitzer said. He hadn't watched Lou Dobbs, but he'd seen some transcripts. "I ignore it. Honestly, I ignore it. If there was a serious intellectual response to him, I would think about it very deeply. If it is essentially an ad-hominem attack, I don't care."
One night, Spitzer's office arranged for us to meet for a drink rather than talk in his office. This surprised me, since Spitzer is not an after-work-drink kind of guy. That weekend, he had gone down to Washington, D.C., and cut a deal with Michael Chertoff, the Secretary of Homeland Security, in which, once again without telling anyone, Spitzer had backpedalled on his license proposal: now the license that illegal immigrants could get would, in effect, be a limited one - for example, you couldn't use it to get on a plane - and New York would comply with the Bush Administration's plan for a federal Real I.D., an enhanced form of identification that has prompted misgivings among liberals and libertarians alike. In short, he had abandoned his supporters on the license proposal and also handed the Bush Administration a political gift. And his opponents weren't sated. If anything, they were emboldened.
We met at E.A.T., a gourmet food shop on Madison Avenue, around the corner from his apartment. A pair of black Suburbans pulled up, and he bounced out of the first one, fresh from an appearance on "Hardball," where he had parried Chris Matthews's barrage of moderately hostile license-debate recapitulations with generously uninterrupted on-message clarifications. We found a table in the back, where he learned, with some disappointment, that E.A.T. didn't serve Scotch. (I had suggested Bemelmans Bar, at the Carlyle, but Spitzer had frowned: not his scene.) He ordered a glass of white wine. Talking again about the license plan's merits, he said, "If we can get the public to focus - forget the rhetoric on both sides - focus on this as just rational policy."
I asked him if at this point he was just playing for a draw. “If I knew what I was playing for, it'd solve a big problem,” he said. He received a message on his BlackBerry: a text of remarks that Mayor Bloomberg had made, moments earlier, on CNN, in which he had condemned Spitzer's license policy. The Governor betrayed no disappointment or annoyance.
"Here's the reality: reform is a messy process. I went up to Albany with the avowed purpose of changing the way things were done. Some of the folks there don't want us to do that. They're pushing back, holding on for power," Spitzer said. "But you know what? It takes time, and there's enormous pushback. And so anybody who thought it was going to be pretty - and I'll say something now that I probably shouldn't. It's not because I’ve had two sips of wine. Editorial boards desperately want reform but yet desperately don't want the discomfort of seeing people fighting. And so there is a sort of a schizophrenia. They see us fighting and they say, 'Can't you guys get along?' Well, the answer is, you know, maybe not."
He had another sip of wine. "None of this is personal to me. In other words, no matter what has been said, I like Joe Bruno. I mean, it's a crazy thing for me to say. I was on the phone with him last week. We had a great chat. We had the most wonderful chat we've had in the years I've known him." (A spokesman for Bruno said of the call, "It was about a personal matter, it had nothing to do with the business of governing.")
"Joe's trying to hold on to power," Spitzer said. "That's fine. I would do the same thing if I was in his position. The media says, Oh, Spitzer, you went to Albany, you were going to change everything. It's October. What's happened? My attitude is, Guys, I'm playing for the long game .... I'm patient. I don't look it. I don't act it. You know what? I'm disciplined to know this isn't a one-inning game. And I'm learning that. I'm learning that." Spitzer had taken to likening the job of governor to "three-dimensional chess."
He went on, "I feel sometimes like I’m sinking into quicksand and subjected to the very significant - and sometimes appropriate - critiques of editorial pages about missteps, which I read, and, like any normal person, mutter under my breath and resent, but then take seriously. And trust me. Don't take any of this to suggest that I don't think we've made mistakes. My attitude is I will never deny we made mistakes." He is ever mindful of the example of George W. Bush, who infamously, at a 2004 press conference on the Iraq war, couldn't think of any mistakes he'd made. ("That made me cringe," he'd told me.)
"Will you discuss the mistakes?" I asked.
"No. I learned that lesson the hard way. I was with an editorial board one time, and they said, Did you make a mistake doing this or that? I said, Yeah, I should have done it this way. And I thought I was showing them that I had some capacity to be introspective - which I may or may not have, but I thought at least I'd fooled them on the issue. And, the next day, screaming headlines, 'Spitzer Admits Mistake.' So I’ve learned."
He went on, “We have a long time horizon, so I don't worry about the ups and downs.”
By November, Spitzer had begun to entertain private doubts about the feasibility of the license plan. The first inkling came when, shortly after the Chertoff compromise, he had a sit-down with the "specialty media" - editors of Hispanic, Irish, Indian, and Chinese newspapers, among others - who told him that a lower-tier license would be a "scarlet letter." And if they would not sign up for it, then it became even harder to justify. "It was a remarkably successful political maneuver that left me standing in the middle with enemies on both sides," he reflected later. "I had a tsunami coming from one side and a hurricane coming from the other, and it was not a healthy situation to be in."
On November 6th, Spitzer gathered his core staff at his farm in Columbia County, to talk about a number of pressing issues. The last item on the agenda was the driver's-license policy. He asked his staff, "What's the move?" Some said stick it out. Others said let it go: it clearly was impeding their ability to get other things done. Spitzer emerged still committed. On a subsequent trip to Puerto Rico, he made a few philosophical comments about the nature of policymaking that indicated to reporters that he might be wavering. He told me that his words were misconstrued, but admitted, "The fact that I made those comments reflected that I was going through internal evaluations" - a rare acknowledgment of the existence of the unconscious. He spent a day at the beach with his wife, their first day off together in months, and mulled it over some more.
It was, according to his staff, a wrenching process, although he was loath to admit it ("Look, I don't torture myself over decisions," he told me), not only because he felt that he was right, in policy terms, but because, according to the laws of dinner-table family argument, being right about being right is as important as being right. Political expediency, for better or worse, is not a principle he holds dear. However, on conference calls with his core staff over the weekend, he discerned that the mood had shifted: there was something approaching a bag-it consensus. Also, a few days hence, the Democratic candidates for President would be debating in Las Vegas. Hillary Clinton's equivocations on the subject of Spitzer's plan, in the previous debate, had wounded her campaign. On Tuesday morning, Baum, the secretary to the Governor, spoke with a representative from Clinton's campaign, who asked what the Governor's latest thinking was on the license issue. Baum said that the Governor had already changed his mind. Spitzer's staff had been surprised that the Clinton campaign hadn't called earlier. His communications director, Christine Anderson, told her counterpart on the Clinton campaign, Howard Wolfson, "You're going to get blamed for it." Apparently, it was a misconception that the Clinton camp could live with.
That afternoon, Spitzer called Clinton to let her know his decision and flew down to Washington, in the state plane, to announce his retreat, on terms that might flatter him. He continued to defend the policy, on the merits, and then assailed the federal government for failing to act on immigration and also criticized his opponents for their hysterical rhetoric: "The consequence of this fearmongering is paralysis." He had exhibited a new grasp of that old political talent: extracting oneself from an intractable position. That is, he had caved.
Two days later, I visited him in his office. The night before, he'd gone to a Bruce Springsteen concert in Albany with his old friends Bill Taylor and Cliff Sloan, and he'd been heartened by Springsteen's encore, a number about immigrants called “American Land.” “I thought he was going to add a line like ‘Don't they all need driver's licenses?’” he said. “But somehow it wasn't there.” During the concert, he had checked his BlackBerry and learned that, at the debate in Vegas, Clinton, as expected, had said she was opposed to his discarded plan.
Referring to his turnaround, he said, "The problem that people have attributed to me is one of hubris, arrogance, unwillingness to shift, listen, and respond. But I did it because we are responding. We are listening .... Look, I may not appear to listen, but I do." Plus, he went on, "you've excised a cancer that had been fundamentally debilitating to our ability to move the agenda."
Within days, the furor went into remission. The Post, moving on, ran a story about Spitzer's appearance at a private fund-raiser in Greenwich Village. A witness told the Post Spitzer had declared that if the Democrats took the State Senate legalizing gay marriage would be one of his highest priorities. Spitzer denied it (he said he'd merely complimented the Assembly on its passage of a gay-marriage bill), but, sure enough, the Republicans picked up the gay-marriage drumbeat.
By last week, Spitzer seemed to have settled into a lumps-taking, amends-making phase - one as unfamiliar as it is likely to be short-lived. After meeting with a gathering of Democratic assemblymen, whom he'd asked for another chance, he told me, "It's like I am merely an object being moved, subject to poking, pushing, like an unknown in a science lab. Everyone's trying to push at you, figure out ‘What is it?’”
"When I was a prosecutor, we had a much greater opportunity to reflect on every decision," he had said earlier. "The pace of decision-making and the range of decision-making was slower. And much more under control. You are, by and large, the actor who determines pace, timing, substance, et cetera. You control the pace of the game. In this job, a great deal comes at you, and so you're thrust into positions where you're reacting. And just the scale, obviously, makes it more likely that you're going to have decisions that go awry.
"I don't believe that at age forty-eight that you become, overnight, a transformed person," he said. "But is there a different sense of how we have to work with folks? Yes."