The Crusader

Eliot Spitzer, the attorney general of New York, has risen to national prominence by emulating Teddy Roosevelt and fearlessly taking on powerful interests. His aggressiveness has made him a lot of enemies—but it may propel him to the governor's mansion and beyond

Along the way there's a ten-minute meeting at a bed-and-breakfast with an upstate county executive running for Congress, and a drive past towns such as Westfield, with its statue of Abraham Lincoln thanking Grace Bedell, a little girl who wrote the newly elected President to suggest he'd look cute with a beard, and Mayville, the Chautauqua County seat; the original clerk's office, near where Mayville's two-room courthouse stood, is now Mel's Full-Service Bakery and Café.

"There's almost a midwestern sensibility here," Spitzer says. "You're both geographically and sensibility-wise closer to the Midwest than you are New York City." He pauses for a moment, as if he's just remembered the post he will soon run for, and adds, evidently not wanting to offend future constituents, "But it also feels like upstate New York."

He should know these roads; traveling them made him the Democratic future. In 1994, after working for six years in the Manhattan district attorney's office and a stint in private practice, he took a run at the attorney general's office. He had no previous political experience, and finished last among four in the party's primary. For the next four years he canvassed and crisscrossed the state in his Dodge minivan, showing up in the driveways of local Democratic Party officials, attending every fundraising dinner he could. (A few days before our trip, standing in his office, he pointed to a map of the state that hangs on his wall, explaining that it had been given to him during his successful 1998 campaign. "I said, 'If we win, we'll put this on the wall.' As a demonstration of my parochialism, I actually think looking at a map of New York is kind of neat. You can see the Finger Lakes. I've been to basically every town on that map.")

"Quite literally, he wore out his shoes," Spitzer's wife, Silda, told me recently over breakfast on the Upper East Side. "He has one pair of dress shoes. I find it quite amusing to read the number of articles that speak about Eliot's privileged background. His family is very comfortable now but everything they have has come by hard work and using a fierce intelligence. It really is that American dream that he comes from, and no one in his family takes it for granted. He lives simply and in a very spare way."

"If I'm going to Kmart or Wal-Mart or somewhere similar," she continues, "Eliot looks at the bills." (According to IRS filings, last year Spitzer earned $755,000—the majority of which, $596,000, came from rent on two buildings he and his family own on Madison Avenue.)

In some ways Spitzer's is a familiar New York City story: His father, Bernard, who was born to immigrants from Austria and who grew up on the Lower East Side and fell in love one summer in the Catskills with a woman named Anne (whose parents were from what was then Palestine), turned a civil-engineering degree into a multimillion-dollar high-rise-apartment business. Eliot, the youngest of three children, spent his childhood in the relatively upscale Riverdale section of the Bronx. In what has become the first chapter of the Spitzer legend, Eliot's parents turned their household dinners into public-policy forums, Kennedy-family style, where they would force their children to come up with topics for discussion. These could include anything from political races to literature, as long as the children were being compelled to think about the state of the world.

And so Eliot—who got his secondary education at the leafy, near suburban campus of Horace Mann, where he thrived as a tennis player at the same time that John McEnroe was dominating at the school's rival, Trinity, on the Upper West Side—did not go into the world a trivial man. In fact, it might be said he left home, for Princeton, a teenage wonk. (Today he's an adult wonk, with an attention to detail that seems borderline obsessive. Before interviewing with me, Spitzer had his spokesman, Dopp, drop me an e-mail asking, "Would you mind sending me a little personal information?" Nothing elaborate, Dopp wrote, just a "brief sketch" of myself. "Are you from [New York] originally? Where did you go to school? … What does your Dad do? What do you do to stay in shape? Anything you wish to share. Spitzer likes to know.") As a sophomore at Princeton, Spitzer ran for and won the presidency of the undergraduate student government—something that earned him regular mentions in The Daily Princetonian and the scorn of the likes of Virginia Postrel, now a libertarian columnist, who on her Web site deemed her old Princeton classmate Spitzer to be part of a group of "resume-polishing student-council weenies." If true, the résumé he was polishing was hardly typical: that summer, taking only a few dollars and an emergency credit card, Spitzer went to work as a day laborer in Atlanta and New Orleans and upstate New York, spending his days handling fiberglass insulation or picking tomatoes and his nights in one-night boarding houses. Why? Because he understood he'd been given advantages, and wanted to know if he could survive without them.

"He didn't know he was a geek, but he was," says James Cramer, a former hedge-fund manager who currently co-hosts a talk show on CNBC. He and Spitzer both attended Harvard Law School and met their first week there, in 1981. Spitzer may have been a geek, but he was a tireless geek. In Cambridge he worked as an editor at the Harvard Law Review. As a summer intern for Lloyd Constantine, then the assistant attorney general of New York in charge of antitrust enforcement, Spitzer worked on the prosecution of a price-fixing case involving ambulance services in Syracuse. ("I've had hundreds of interns and hundreds of students," Constantine says. "He was the best. He was different from the day he walked in. He had an air of confidence that said he was a leader. He reeked of it. He came in and in a very polite way his message was 'I'm smarter than you, and I can lick you.'") During the school year Spitzer was a research assistant to Alan Dershowitz, and worked on the appeal case of Claus von Bulow, which was later made infamous by the 1990 Jeremy Irons movie Reversal of Fortune.

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Sridhar Pappu is an Atlantic correspondent.

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