Byline: David Margolick
It was Inauguration Day-Day One, the day everything was supposed to change. The strains of "Fanfare for the Common Man" dissolved into the chilly Albany air, and Governor Eliot Spitzer, Princeton '81, Harvard Law School '84, rose to speak. "Like Rip van Winkle ... New York has slept through much of the past decade while the rest of the world has passed us by," he declared as his predecessor, George Pataki, squirmed nearby. But now "the light of a new day shines down on the Empire State." (He'd ignored everyone else's counsel to hold the ceremonies indoors, and the comparatively mild weather, at least for the tundra in January, was surely another sign the gods were with him.) He promised leadership as ethical and wise as all New York. He called on his fellow citizens to enter "the arena," just as his idol, Theodore Roosevelt, had once urged, and as he himself had done. Then he went Churchillian. "Lend your sweat, your toil, and your passion to the effort of building One New York," he implored. "My fellow New Yorkers, our moment is here. Day One is now."
For all the soaring rhetoric, though, the phrase people would most remember from Eliot Spitzer's inauguration last New Year's Day came not from Eliot Spitzer at all. It came later that day, when James Taylor sang for the new governor and over a thousand guests at an arena-not the kind T.R. had in mind- nearby. That phrase, combined with Spitzer's vulgar enhancement of it, would take its place in American political lore, alongside "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself" and "Ask not what your country can do for you" and "I'm not a crook"-and would become his unofficial motto, though no one would know this for a few more weeks. "I'm a steamroller, baby," Taylor sang. "I'm bound to roll all over you."
In late January, Jim Tedisco, a Republican and the minority leader of the State Assembly, was driving to Albany on the Governor Thomas E. Dewey New York State Thruway-named for the last crime buster before Spitzer to catapult himself to the capital-when his cell phone rang. It was the governor, asking him to attend a press conference announcing ethics-reform legislation. Tedisco resisted; he'd just been excluded from some key meetings, and feared he'd merely be a prop. (Spitzer recalls it was Tedisco, dissatisfied with his treatment by the governor, who initiated the discussion.) That was when he got what's now known around Albany as the "Full Spitzer," or at least the electronic version, minus the bulging veins and spluttering that eyewitnesses get to see.
Spitzer's voice suddenly changed, Tedisco recalls: it became louder, shriller, more guttural, more menacing. In three weeks he'd done more for New York State than any governor in history, Spitzer screamed. He was having enough trouble with the other goddamned legislative leaders, he went on; Tedisco would do what he was told-or he'd be crushed. As if the point weren't sufficiently clear, Spitzer put it another way, courtesy of James Taylor. "Listen," he shrieked, "I'm a fucking steamroller, and I'll roll over you and anybody else."
"I was thinking to myself, My God, is this really the governor?" Tedisco recalls. "To tell you the truth, I almost drove off the thruway.... It's almost like an addiction he has to be confrontational," Tedisco goes on. "The only way to help him is to buy a Dale Carnegie course for better communication skills, or 10 counseling lessons on temper control." And it was all such a pity, given the high expectations for the man. "He had everything going for him," Tedisco says. "He's the one guy who could have turned this whole thing around."
Note the tenses-past and past conditional-because they're the ones that politicians, Republicans and Democrats alike, often employ these days to describe the 48-year-old Spitzer. Brilliant and energetic, he was as much crowned as elected, swept into office in the biggest landslide in New York gubernatorial history. A Democrat from New York City, he brought New Yorkers together, Republican and Democratic, upstate and down. No one seemed better equipped than the former "Sheriff of Wall Street," arguably the most influential state attorney general in American history, to get dysfunctional Albany, the captive of special interests, unstuck. Wherever Spitzer went, people wanted to follow, sometimes quite literally. At six o'clock on inauguration morning, he took a two-mile jog around Albany's Washington Park, and 200 people got up early enough to accompany him.
But, by any definition, Spitzer has had a rocky maiden year. As his first anniversary approaches, the State Legislature has largely ground to a halt. New York's most powerful Republican, Joseph L. Bruno, now barely speaks to him after Spitzer's office sicced the state police (and considered siccing the I.R.S.) on him. Many members of Spitzer's own party loathe him. Newspapers, even deadly rivals such as the New York Post and the New York Daily News, have turned against him. Even his great champion, The New York Times, has soured on him. The Daily News's Michael Goodwin, one of his harshest critics, wrote recently that Spitzer "seems incapable of telling the truth, admitting mistakes or working with anybody of either party," and urged New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg to challenge him in 2010. (In October, a Siena College poll showed that Bloomberg, who strenuously insists he doesn't even want the job, would beat Spitzer. In November, the same poll found that only one in four voters was prepared to re-elect Spitzer, while nearly half preferred "someone else.")
Thanks largely to Spitzer and particularly to his short-lived and politically disastrous proposal to grant driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants, imperiled state Republicans feel resurrected. Spitzer's radioactivity has even spilled over into the presidential race, with Hillary Clinton, through various contradictory statements on the subject, sprinkling isotopes from the license fiasco all over herself before Spitzer withdrew the plan in mid-November. Many of the usual suspects in all the glowing Spitzer profiles that have appeared over the years have suddenly gone mute. Ask Jim Cramer of CNBC's Mad Money, Spitzer's pal from Harvard Law School, about the guy and he is uncharacteristically speechless.
Elite as it was, there turn out to be a few holes in the education of Eliot Spitzer. It seems he has never learned how to work well with other people. He has never unlearned how to be a prosecutor. He did not know Albany. And, until he bailed out on the license proposal, he could never admit that he was wrong-if not on the merits in that instance, then at least on the execution. His enemies describe it all with Schadenfreude, and maybe a few I-told-you-sos. Admirers speak angrily, sadly, almost elegiacally about opportunities lost, maybe irretrievably so. "It's all so frustrating, because he actually was right [about things]," says Ester Fuchs, a professor of public affairs and political science at Columbia University and lifelong student of New York politics. "He just didn't know how to do it."
Visit with Spitzer, though, and you sense none of this. It is as if it were still Inauguration Day, and he'd just gotten off the podium. You sense the incredible discipline and self-control and intelligence that got him so high so fast, and which, if the gods reappear, will get him out of his predicament. He is immaculate, formal, upbeat. Whatever he is feeling, whatever bruises he bears, sit in a closet somewhere: The Picture of Eliot Spitzer. He even says so: "I'm not great at the self-reflecting type of answers. It's not my nature."
As soon as he reached Albany, Spitzer set out to destroy Bruno, first by trying to pick off from …