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

"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.

"One time Dershowitz gave us his Celtics tickets," recalls Cliff Sloan, one of Spitzer's Harvard classmates and now general counsel for the online versions of Newsweek and The Washington Post, "and the Celtics were playing the Knicks [at Boston Garden]. And here we are in the middle of this very pro-Celtics crowd, and Eliot was on his feet cheering for the Knicks. He was angering everyone around us, especially the regulars—but he was unbowed in his full-blown enthusiastic support of the Knicks. Eliot's just fearless."

Perhaps the best thing Spitzer got out of his time at Harvard was Silda, a fellow law-school student, whom he married two days before the stock-market collapse of 1987. She is tall, blonde, and discreetly pretty in the manner of, say, a young Blythe Danner, and comes from an America that to the vast majority of New Yorkers seems as foreign and remote as Mars. The product of small-town North Carolina life, Silda arrived in Cambridge from an all-women's school, Meredith College, in Raleigh. Today she runs, without salary, a foundation she created for city children, and she can speak passionately, with a precision that matches her highly articulate husband's, about everything from parenting to international law. She is, in short, perfect first-lady material, though outwardly reluctant to contemplate that role.

"That's going to be Eliot's decision," she says of a run for governor. "We'll see where that ends up falling out. I think he'd be great. It's not something I'm pushing for anyway."

One could certainly sympathize if Silda were to approach her husband one day and say, "Enough." After all, she was five months pregnant with the couple's third child when Spitzer announced his 1994 campaign. And she was a completely sleep-deprived mother when Spitzer began one of the strangest political campaigns in New York history, four years later. After he emerged the winner, with only 41 percent of the vote, in a three-way Democratic primary, in 1998, the New York Times editorial page half-heartedly (at best) threw its support to him over his Republican opponent, Dennis Vacco. The Times wrote that Spitzer had "misled the public about how his father's wealth was used to support about $9 million in loans that financed his campaigns in 1994 and 1998," adding, "We endorse Mr. Spitzer because Mr. Vacco's performance and his key policy positions make him an even worse choice." Not the most ringing endorsement.

Even from his own party support for Spitzer was only lukewarm. After being prodded into endorsing him on the steps of the New York Public Library, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan walked away, according to a source close to Spitzer, murmuring, "Nice kid. He's gonna get killed."

Spitzer didn't get killed. But on election night his lead was so slight that Vacco would not concede; instead he waited forty-one days, through a vicious, tenacious recount. (In the end Spitzer won by 25,000 votes.) Vacco, now in private practice, says of his onetime nemesis, "I think he's done a credible job."

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