Spitzer's Psyche
Current Events Joan Swirsky, Featured Writer
March 15, 2008

"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 issue. This 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 issue. As Attorney General, Spitzer knew the law inside and out. He crushed the Gambino crime family’s control of 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 of Columbia.


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 opposite stance.


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 attorney general.


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 Staten Island.”


"’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 prostitutes.


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 – Risk-Taking

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.


Risk-taking is 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 says:


"Some people are addicted to taking risks...most risk takers are men.”


The magazine goes on to say:


"...risk involves 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 elude them.


When caught 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 apologia.


 "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 marriages?”


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.

Joan Swirsky, is a Featured Writer for The New Media Journal. A New York-based author and journalist, she was formerly a longtime health-and-science and feature writer for The New York Times Long Island section. She is the recipient of seven Long Island Press Awards...

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