"How could he be so
stupid?” people ask of Eliot Spitzer, the NY State Governor who resigned
on March 12th after being caught in a prostitution ring being
investigated by the government. On the day before Valentine’s Day – so
he could give his wife roses on February 14th? – he sneaked into the
posh Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., under an assumed name,
spending $4,300 for a two-hour tryst with a hooker named "Kristen.”
As details poured out,
it became known that the governor was a longtime customer who had spent
as much as $80,000 with the pricey prostitution enterprise over a period
of at least 10 years.
Stupidity is not the
graduate of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and
International Affairs had a perfect score on his Law School Admission
Test (LSAT) and then attended Harvard Law School, where he was elected
chairman of the student government and was editor of the Law Review. He
flourished in two prestigious Manhattan law firms, as he subsequently
did in the district attorney’s office, where he was chief of the
labor-racketeering unit. He served two terms as Attorney General of New
York State, and achieved the governorship – by a whopping 69 percent of
NY voters – through a combination of tenacity and brilliance. Spitzer
did not have a stupid problem.
"He knew better!”
others say. "No one knew the legal system like he did – and the
consequences of breaking the law.”
Knowledge is not the
Attorney General, Spitzer knew the law inside and out. He crushed the
Gambino crime family’s
Manhattan's trucking and garment industries, exacted multimillions in fines for price-fixing from several computer
chip manufacturers and multibillions in fines from major Wall Street
investment banks for inflating stock prices. He went after brokerage
firms, hedge funds, music conglomerates, and insurance companies. And he
went after, among others, individuals like Dick Grasso, Chairman of the
NY Stock Exchange, for making too much money, as well as AIG executives
Hank Greenberg and Howard I. Smith, in essence bringing them down,
although none of these men were charged with any criminality.
As author and
journalist Thomas Sowell has written:
"Many in the media
refer to Eliot Spitzer as some moral hero who fell from grace. Spitzer
was never a moral hero. He was an unscrupulous prosecutor who threw his
power around to ruin people, even when he didn't have any case with
which to convict them of anything.”
Spitzer knew better
than anyone that transporting someone across a state line – as he did
Ms. "Kristen” – violated the Mann Act, which is a federal crime, just as
he knew that soliciting and paying for sex is a felony in the District
Clearly not knowing
better was not the problem.
So what drove
48-year-old Eliot Spitzer to engage repeatedly in acts he knew to be
illegal and which ultimately led to his stunning, crashing, thunderous
fall from power?
Theory #1 – Neurosis
Freud’s lengthy list of
defense mechanisms includes reaction formation, in which
anxiety-producing emotions are replaced by their direct opposites – when
a person seeks to cover up something unacceptable by adopting the
We see this in
homosexuals who engage in gay bashing, in mothers who resent their
children being overly protective, and in drug abusers who preach the
virtue of abstinence.
We also see this in
sanctimonious do-gooders who condemn, excoriate, and militate against
prostitutes, as Eliot Spitzer – aka Client #9 – did when he oversaw the
prosecution of at least two prostitution rings when he was
According to Danny
Hakim and William K. Rashbaum in the HeraldTribune.com,
"In one such case in
2004, Mr. Spitzer spoke with revulsion and anger after announcing the
arrest of 16 people for operating a high-end prostitution ring out of
"’This was a
sophisticated and lucrative operation with a multi-tiered management
structure,’” Mr. Spitzer said at the time. "’It was, however, nothing
more than a prostitution ring.’”
So here is a guy who is
irresistibly – as it turns out, fatally – attracted to prostitutes. But
this attraction gives him tremendous anxiety because it contradicts both
his "image” of himself and his carefully-crafted professional
aspirations, which included nothing less lofty than becoming the first
Jewish president of the United States.
Like a crack addict,
Spitzer apparently couldn’t help himself, so he tried to have it both
ways – pursuing, smearing, and prosecuting prostitutes to burnish his
public image, while at the same time indulging himself uncontrollably
with those pretty party girls. Pure reaction formation!
Theory #2 – Hubris
Several years ago, I
co-authored a book about Long Island’s serial killer Joel Rifkin, a
seemingly mild-mannered suburbanite who lived with his mother and worked
occasionally as a gardener, but who savagely murdered 17 New York
Among Rifkin’s proudest
accomplishments was being "smarter than the cops.”
The same can be said of
any number of serial murderers: BTK, the San Francisco Zodiac killer,
Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy...the list goes on. All of them – and a
laundry list of others – appeared to be "normal.” Many were charming.
Some led upright lives. Others were highly accomplished.
But at some point in
their young-adult or adult lives, some cue or memory or impulse or
deep-down demon transformed them from who they thought they were or
tried to be to the savage beasts they really were.
I’m not suggesting that
Spitzer was or is a potential serial killer, but he does share a
central ideation with this species: I’m smarter than the cops!
This belief –
especially in our modern age of electronic monitoring, satellite
surveillance, and global-positioning systems – demonstrates that Spitzer
had, at the very least, the hubris and arrogance that drove these more
pathological creatures to commit the crimes they became famous for.
Experts in the
psychiatric community say that people who demonstrate reaction
formations have obsessive and neurotic personalities. And those who
think they’re smarter than everyone else, including "the cops,” are,
well, pathological in nature.
Theory #3 –
JFK Jr. was a
risk-taker, whose daring and successful exploits included the tragic
flight that ended in his untimely death in 1999. John John, as he was
known for most of his life, came from the legendary Kennedy dynasty, a
family also known for its swaggering risk-taking.
thrilling for some people. It meets their needs for high-intensity
excitement and allows them to shed their inhibitions, fight boredom, and
be remarkably reckless. Clinicians usually label this behavior as
"acting out” and consider it a neurotic way of dealing with anxiety. It
is also, they say, a way of expressing – or tamping down – hostility.
Studies of the human
brain have mapped risk-taking and have defined it as "engaging in any
activity with an uncertain outcome." It is still unclear whether or not
this arises from upbringing or culture or genes. But Psychology Today
"Some people are
addicted to taking risks...most risk takers are men.”
The magazine goes on to
far more than a simple ‘death wish.’ Studies now indicate that the
inclination to take high risks may be hard-wired into the brain,
intimately linked to arousal and pleasure mechanisms, and may offer such
a thrill that it functions like an addiction...”
Risk also changes the
biochemistry of the brain, as geysers of adrenaline course through the
body. Can you imagine these surges every time Spitzer text-messaged his
paramour or called the Madame on his cell phone, knowing the possibility
of being caught? But, like an addict, he couldn’t stop.
Like John John and
other rising stars, the former Governor was clearly driven by the
high-stakes but ultimately self-destructive allure of risk, and like
many of them, he simply imploded.
Theory #4 – Love
"All You Need Is Love,”
one of the Beatles hugest hits, expresses the sentiment that, above all
things, love answers humankind’s deepest needs. But like Bill Clinton,
the king of scandals and narcissism, Eliot Spitzer went looking for love
in all the wrong places.
They join a lot of big
guys with big ambitions, big egos, and big steamroller agendas who just
can’t seem to find true love. Yes, they find "feminist” wives – Silda
Wall Spitzer, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Dina Matos McGreevey come to
mind – who share their ambitions and political philosophies and enhance
their faux images as devoted husbands (and fathers). But love seems to
philandering, this ilk invariably trots out his crestfallen-cum-seething
and mortified wife to stand by them as he mumbles his sorry-I-was-caught
"Just once,” writes
Debra J. Saunders, "I'd like to see a politician caught with his pants
down (so to speak) not trot out his wronged wife to stand beside him as
he issues his mea culpa...Are these women tigers in the boardroom who
settle for leftovers at home? Did they become high-achievers in their
careers only to allow themselves to become support staff in their own
Well, yes – and
probably by mutual agreement. Except for Dina McGreevey, who seemed
genuinely blindsided by the revelation of her husband’s gay lover, I
suspect that Silda and Hillary knew for years of their husbands’ serial
peccadilloes. And tacitly okayed them because that pesky thing called
love was simply asking too much of them.
Monica and "Kristen”
filled that need, which was so powerful and all-consuming that it was
worth it to Bill and Eliot to live a lie and risk – and lose –
everything they had spent their lives striving for – in Bill’s case, a
legacy; in Eliot’s, his career.
Will Spitzer’s story be
a warning for other prominent luminaries and their wives? Not as long as
arrogant neurotics hold office and "love is all you need” prevails.