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

"The things I set out to do three, four years ago appeared at the time to be insane," Spitzer says. "Now everybody here today is saying, 'Look at all this notoriety that he's gotten.' Back then they thought I was nuts. Here I am, going up against the financial-services community. People thought it was political suicide. And the notion back then that I thought it was good politics is ludicrous. Nonetheless, I was concerned about giving these state agencies the latitude and capacity to intervene. It doesn't mean I hesitated, because I went after these cases, but now the genie's out of the bottle, and we're going to try and figure out how we cap it. How do we control this thing?"

When Spitzer, along with two members of his office staff and me, finishes the hour-and-fifteen-minute drive from Buffalo and reaches the closed-off grounds of the Chautauqua Institution, a hard rain has begun to fall. In the distance, beyond leafy paths, in a grand amphitheater built in 1893, where Franklin Roosevelt delivered his "I hate war" speech and where Spitzer will speak today, a choir makes itself heard.

By the time Spitzer is introduced as "the people's lawyer" by Chautauqua's president, Thomas Becker, one thing is clear: this is Spitzer country. Surveying the 3,000 or so people sitting on the yellow wooden benches of the amphitheater, one sees the core of Spitzer's constituency: educated, older, and largely white upper-class men and women—the sort of people who made the mistake of turning on CNBC one day and believing, really believing, that would change the way our dogs ate.

With thunder in the background, Spitzer delivers not a speech but a sermon. He attacks the free-market-is-everything theories of the "Chicago School" of economics. He evokes Teddy Roosevelt, and the need for government intervention against self-interested actors who would distort the market for their own ends. And then, wrapping the audience more and more tightly in his grip, he tells the story of his negotiating with an unnamed investment bank—which is clearly Merrill Lynch—to try to reach a settlement before things escalated to litigation and a public fight. He says the negotiations weren't going well because he had demanded that the investment bank make its e-mails public, to reveal the truth of how the company had been operating. Everything else was on the table, he says, but he wanted the e-mails.

"The last phone call I got from the lawyer representing this investment bank went as follows," Spitzer says. "He said: 'Eliot, be careful. Be careful,' he said. 'We have powerful friends.'" There is a collective oooooh from the audience members. He has confirmed their deepest suspicions and reaffirmed their collective intellect. They weren't stupid or greedy—just deceived by bad, bad men. And because he can, he reaches higher, moving beyond Wall Street to what he calls "the crisis of accountability."

"It is government," he says. "It is the media. It is the not-for-profit sector. It is the CIA. It is our religious denominations. If you think about it, over the last four or five years there is hardly an institution that has not somehow been affected by this crisis of accountability. It makes you wonder what happened … What we are going through right now is an effort to resuscitate these values, and we do it the same way we did it with street crime. We become intolerant of even petty offenses in an effort to restore the moral regime we all know that we should live by."

Spitzer gets a standing ovation. He is a rock star now, and as such he is met after the speech by a group of people wanting a piece of him. Standing in the back entrance of the amphitheater, he gets an autograph request. One man, wearing Birkenstocks, has been a corporate lawyer for five years, he says, but now "I'd like to switch sides." Another man asks if Spitzer speaks to Harvard clubs. Spitzer says he prefers Princeton clubs, but yes, he'll address the Crimson.

Another groupie, a middle-aged man, comes up to him and says, "I'd like to say two things: that you stay in your ethics and that you run for President." "The first is more important than the second," Spitzer responds. "Trust me."

By the time Spitzer returns to Buffalo, the storm that thundered in the background while he spoke at the institution has fully dissipated. That's too bad—because to see the empty streets of that city in broad daylight can sink a person into despondency. Once the nation's eighth largest city, Buffalo has half the population it once had; much of the day you can see an empty trolley move from one end of downtown to another, passing empty storefronts. Buffalo is the home of great early-1900s architecture; most of its office space now lies fallow, the steel mills that lined Lake Erie are gone, and much of the waterfront is contaminated. The city's last flicker of renewal came four years ago, when the founder of Adelphia Communications, John Rigas, pledged to move a chunk of his company's operations to the city, bringing 1,000 new jobs and a fifteen-story waterfront office tower. Adelphia has since declared bankruptcy. In July, Rigas and one of his sons were found guilty on eighteen counts of bank fraud, securities fraud, and conspiracy. That tower was never built.

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Sridhar Pappu is an Atlantic correspondent.

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