Saturday, March 5, 2011

Fingered... But Not Framed

If you haven't already seen it, I'd absolutely recommend director Alex Gibney's documentary Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer. It offers new insight into the shocking downfall and disgrace of the one-time Attorney General, one-time Governor of New York, seen from the larger, political perspective at the end of the Bush era and in the light of the financial meltdown that era brought about.

First, be it said that Spitzer was not framed. As he "mans up" (hate that term!) to admitting in his interview appearances in the movie, he was entirely responsible for succumbing to his sexual demons--a failing he shares with more Washington politicians than you can shake a penis at, including, quite obviously and notably, a good number of past Presidents. It was unquestionably his own dismally fateful choice to hang out with the high-end prostitutes of the Emperor's Club, among whose clients were the politicians and business leaders who arrogated unto themselves imperial powers at the apotheosis of the American "Empire," in the bedroom as well as in the boardroom. Who else could afford those services, at minimally a thousand dollars a squeeze? That Eliot Spitzer chose to be among them does not honestly speak well of him. That he chose, as one of his providers attests, the "wham, bang, thank you ma'am" approach does not speak well of his emotional maturity or his ability to comfortably socialize.

The movie does not shrink from portraying him as an awkward and seemingly affectless man, rigid in manner as well as in his dealings with the world. It left this viewer mad at him, not for his tasteless sexual proclivities so much as for their consequence; they resulted in the betrayal of a trust--and of a promise which could have done much to spare the country the ravages of the economic disaster brought about by unregulated wheelers and dealers on Wall Street. As Attorney General, he was the only person in a position of any power to recognize early on, and to confront the excesses and corruption in the financial industry, the outrageous disproportion of executive salaries, and the scantily veiled dishonesty of their business practices.

Uncowed by the power of these "emperors," he used his legal authority to go after criminal activity where he saw it and to advocate for the regulation that might just have deflected the rapidly approaching meltdown, had others chosen to follow his example. In doing so, he made himself unpopular with unscrupulous and vindictive people: the villains of this piece include Hank Greenberg, CEO of the "too big to fail" and soon-to-be ill-fated AIG; the billionaire investment banker Ken Langone; and the eventually disgraced head of the New York Stock Exchange, Dick Grasso--all of whom managed to enrich themselves obscenely at the expense of the millions of Americans who suffered mightily as a result of their unbounded greed. (In a footnote to the movie, Greenberg is shown lamenting that his share in AIG had become "worthless" as a result of his company's collapse, and the federal bailout his mismanagement necessitated. "Worthless," in Greenberg's estimation, turned out to be a measly $160 million. Poor guy, left with barely enough to live on.)

Spitzer capitalized on the popularity his actions earned him by running for the governorship of the state--not a good move, in retrospect, for the rest of us. We needed an Eliot Spitzer to keep doing the Eliot Ness work in the financial sector. As the movie tells the story--I think with accuracy--his abrasive, uncompromising style was ill-suited to the wheel-and-deal political world of Albany. His inflexibility (some would call it honesty) earned him more enemies, notably the Republican President Pro-Tem of the New York State Senate, Joe Bruno (later convicted on mail and wire fraud charges) and his minion, the sleazy political operative Roger Stone, who claimed to have set in motion the probing that eventually led to Spitzer's exposure and disgrace.

The movie suggests, persuasively, that the federal investigation of the Emperor's Club was selective and politically motivated in its pursuit of Eliot Spitzer, the only "john" to suffer as a result of his involvement. The US Justice Department, as the still fairly recent resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales showed, had been suborned to serve the political purposes of the Bush administration and the Republican party. Spitzer was not only a thorn in the flesh of the business establishment and a threat to their unbridled abuse of the financial system, but also a rapidly-rising inspiration for progressive politicians and voters. He had to be discredited.

His enemies took undisguised delight in his unmasking as the patron of expensive whores. Unproven was the very real possibility that they were also instrumental in fingering the object of their hatred. I continue to suspect that Bill Clinton was framed, in the sense that those who wished him ill and knew of his susceptibilities were able to plant a willing morsel of bait within easy sniffing distance of the Oval Office. But there's a difference between pointing the finger and setting a trap, and I'm equally sure that Spitzer had the right mixture of arrogance and undernourished lust to walk into his own. More's the pity. And what a squandered opportunity to thwart the real evil-doers. It's galling that not a single one of them has been held accountable for their actions, nor been required to repay those whom they cheated.

There ought to be a special dungeon for these people, but it's the petty criminals and addicts in our society who get thrown in jail. This it is that the rich criminals get rewarded with further riches--and corrupt politicians with sweet returns on their corruption. Let's not forget the anomaly that Newt Gingrich, who brought about the impeachment of a philandering President even as he was grubbily philandering backstage himself, now has the gall to be strutting the political stage again as he tests out another run for President, while Eliot Spitzer--surely a hero for those of us who believe in accountability and long for justice--continues to languish in disgrace.

The story of this movie is as outrageous as any told by Michael Moore, but without the bombast and the posturing. The meticulous, low-key narrative deserves our attention in this strangest and most desperate of times.


robin andrea said...

I had not heard of this movie before reading your review. I should pay more attention to the emails I get from Michael Moore!

robin andrea said...

I just re-read the post and saw that it's not by Michael Moore. Good, that bombast is what keeps me from reading his emails. He does good works, but oy.

CHI SPHERE said...


mandt said...

Spitzer is one of the most talented criminal attorneys in the nation. It's good that his restoration via CNN is underway. Unfortunately his character flaw of arrogance makes him a prime set-up target. He took on criminal corporations and they destroyed him.