Government Bully Gets Busted

Elliot Spitzer’s inclusion in a federal criminal complaint — short of an indictment — for making dates with prostitutes from the “Emperor’s Club” and soliting their travel across state lines has garnered outsized attention. One reason for the media feeding frenzy is the old hypocrisy charge that usually makes Republican sexual immorality more “scandalous” than Democratic transgressions. But the hypocrisy isn’t in the charge or the reaction to it. It is based on the misconception that Spitzer was a reformer. In truth Spitzer is a government bully who preys on rivals and convenient targets.

Republican philanderers, swingers, cruisers, and pederasts get particular abuse for having articulated some sort of traditional attitude towards sex (or just being in a party that often does so). Spitzer is being hit as a hypocrite because the news media perceived him as a “stickler” and a watch-dog in the ethics arena. Spitzer as reformer and moral crusader, however, was a farce, resulting from the media’s confusing “guy-who-likes-to-use-government-might” with “reformer.”

Spitzer built his reputation in his eight years as attorney general by prosecuting and threatening to prosecute rich people in what the New York Times describes as a “relentless pursuit of Wall Street wrongdoing.”

Time magazine carried this headline in 2003: “Wall Street’s Top Cop; In a year when business let so many down, Eliot Spitzer fought back. How a rich kid from the Bronx became the people’s champion.”

In truth, Spitzer’s career has been all about relentless pursuit of: (a) political rivals; or, more frequently (b) convenient targets who would earn him media praise.

Let’s review Spitzer’s targets in the past. In 2002, Atty. Gen. Spitzer investigated and subpoenaed crisis pregnancy centers that did not provide or counsel abortions. These pro-life institutions, which provide material, medical, emotional, and spiritual support for (typically poor and usually immigrant or black) pregnant women, might be perpetrating “fraud” Spitzer suggested. The fraud: claiming to help pregnant women, but refusing to help them abort their child. Spitzer dropped the case after earning plaudits from pro-choice groups and forcing the centers to hire lawyers.

Around the same time, seeking a second term as attorney general and gearing up his gubernatorial run, Spitzer prosecuted a slew of family-run Korean businesses in New York City for not paying their workers minimum wage.

But the New York Times and the national media mostly portrayed Spitzer as going after fat cats. In his crusades against corporate America, sober review of the facts reveal a less flattering picture.

When he was gunning for insurance giant AIG, it was supposedly as the champion of the firm’s shareholders; with their shares worth barely half as much as when he started, ask those shareholders how that went. As usual, operating more by threats of government force rather than actual prosecution of actual wrong-doing, he pressured AIG to fire their CEO in order to avoid a costly (and possibly fatal) day in court.

In short, he was a big-government bully. The same was true in the realm of politics. He used state police in an attempt to smear his chief political rival in Albany, Republican Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno.

While the media has not stood by Spitzer’s side in the Bruno case, most of his crusades were portrayed as populist battles. Tactics didn’t matter. Consequences — like the 45% loss by AIG’s shareholders — didn’t matter. Aggressive government was good in itself.

The media often feels about the government the way Madeleine Albright felt about military force: what’s the use of having a mighty government if you’re not going to use it. Government action always serves the little guy, the conventional wisdom in news rooms goes, while inaction serves the big guy. As Joe Bruno, the crisis pregnancy centers, and the Korean grocers can tell you today, government action often hurts those who cross government officials or make convenient targets.

Once we see Spitzer in this more accurate light — as a government bully rather than a reformer — he looks less like a hypocrite and more like a man high on power and high on himself. It was only fitting that Spitzer would get tied up in the “Emperor’s Club.” And now even his media see that this emperor has no clothes.