Eliot and I

I was in a meeting today when Spitzer resigned, and I’m glad. I think it would have been too sad to watch. So many hopes were pinned on him. He seemed to embody everything that was good and great about New York. It didn’t matter what part of the state you were from; he was supposed to be an Uber-Governor, the Great Reformer who would vanquish the Boss, and every tough word made voters’ hearts thrill a little bit – even when he seemed to be down. Spitzer was going to scatter the wrongdoers with his mighty arm, and New York was going to come back and be great again.

He and the people of New York had an understanding, one that was going to elevate both him and us. How rare and special that kind of understanding is. Or was. Or wasn’t.

Now that he’s gone, it’s not just a political career that has been ruined, not just an individual’s ego perhaps deflated, but in a way, the self-perception of New Yorkers as leaders and progressives may have deflated a little, as well. (I mean “progressive” in the old-fashioned sense it was used in the 19th century — industrially as well as socially.) This is why Spitzer was elected so handily. He didn’t have to make speeches or really sell himself: he himself was the speech.

Even before Monday’s bombshell, it was clear that things weren’t working out as everyone had hoped. There was last year’s Choppergate ethics scandal, and all of the infuriating political shenanigans attached; and his failure with the immigrant licensing issue. Those were the big things, but there were so many little things that went wrong, or off tracks, or just… “off.” I think back hard for a high point. State of the Upstate speech?

Initially, in 2005, it was Tom Suozzi who attracted my interest as a potential candidate for governor, even though Spitzer was already being highly touted, with even Chuck Schumer stepping out of his way. It was Suozzi, however, who had seized the issue of reform (in his clumsy way) early on. In any other year, Suozzi would have been a formidable candidate. He was too much in bed with the Conservative Party for my tastes, and had his own ethical baggage, but when he decided to primary Spitzer, I thought it was good. The richness and depth of New York’s political field offered ample opportunity for Spitzer to sharpen his all-important message and focus on the state’s tremendous problems before he even entered office. Suozzi’s presence in the race could only help shape Spitzer’s future greatness.

But Spitzer persistently refused to debate Suozzi, only giving in after Suozzi just wouldn’t drop it. After all, what did Spitzer need with debates when his poll numbers were so overwhelmingly secure? Upstaters only got to see one of these debates – at least, one that involved both candidates. It was a disappointment, and I consoled myself by voting for Suozzi and pretending I was sending Spitzer a little message. Cute, I know. But Spitzer was not the kind of guy who was capable of sensing such faint messages from the hinterlands. When it came to matters not involving political pugilism, he apparently lived by the poll, even when he could have lived a fuller political life past them. (He died by them, too.)

When Spitzer was due to choose a running mate, there was some idea that he might choose a woman, or maybe even an Upstater for balance. It wasn’t a huge deal, but it was a tantalizing possibility. But not only did he not pick an Upstater, his choice was (to me) doubly puzzling and disappointing. Why would he steal away Dave Paterson from the Senate? Paterson was supposed to become our Majority Leader, the successor to Bruno in the epic battle that Spitzer would personally lead on a white charger. Later, I understood why. It was more about positioning Paterson to be appointed to Hillary Clinton’s job in 2008, once Hillary won the presidency, as she no doubt handily would. All ducks neatly in a row. The great work of a hero, it appeared, didn’t have anything to do with our little hopes for symbolic acknowledgement.

When Spitzer was elected, up went a transition website soliciting resumes from hopefuls all across New York. It was to reach out in a bipartisan manner to people from all over the state and even the country, in hopes of breaking Albany’s hold on such jobs. But the website’s submission form, apparently cribbed in haste from another website, also had a field for “Where would you be willing to relocate to…” with India and North Carolina as some of the choices. Those of us who noticed it had a good laugh, but…

Spitzer also had another website. It was called Spitzer 2010. What about Spitzer Today? I recall wondering.

I remember attending a Spitzer speech on saving cities, before the election. I was trying to get a feel for his ideas and rhetoric, what sort of inspiring inaugural speech he might give us, what grasp of imagery he had, what fresh ideas for Syracuse he might have. It felt like a very wonky speech, without much new in it. I thought this was just a style we would have to get used to, and wait and watch harder for the breaks of light in the rhetorical clouds. But those breaks of light never really came.

Spitzer, as governor, made the rounds of Upstate cities and to Syracuse. What ideas would he bring with him beyond the usual promises of aid and gifts? What was our role in his master plan? But nothing new was unveiled; he just met with local movers and shakers, proclaimed their pre-existing plans good — plans that didn’t always enthuse local alternative thinkers. “Right… carry on.” He also hired an “Upstate Czar,” something which appeared to be a good idea, and still does I suppose (I wonder what will become of Dan Gundersen now?). But I couldn’t help feeling that whenever Spitzer came here, he was not really paying attention. Of course he couldn’t; this is a huge state; but…

And the little disappointments unfolded against a constant state of war.

Hope after hope, continued waiting and hoping, and little disappointments here and there. And questions floating in, vague wonderings if Spitzer really “got it.” Of course he did. How could he not? All one needed to do was wait just a little while longer.

We had an understanding, Eliot and I.