In the catalog of life-altering surprises, few compare to the query that came my way a few weeks ago from CNN/US President Jon Klein: “How would you like to co-anchor a prime-time show on CNN?”
Surely neither drumroll nor punch line is necessary at this point. My co-anchor would be Eliot Spitzer, variously known as the sheriff of Wall Street and the “disgraced” politician who resigned as governor of New York after it was revealed that he had consorted with prostitutes.
No one needs a rehash of those events, though there’s plenty available for schadenfreude addicts.
My initial reaction to the proposal was the same as most everybody else’s. Do what? It was so counterintuitive on its face that I was disinclined. And then I became curious.
Why not hear them out?
Thus, I found myself on the train from Washington to New York to meet Spitzer. We sat around a small table in his office, drank coffee and spoke frankly about the possibilities and the probable obstacles. I also read everything I could about Spitzer, including “Rough Justice,” the story of Spitzer’s rise and fall by Fortune magazine editor Peter Elkind, who revealed Spitzer to be a tragic and complex figure.
I suspect that most non-New Yorkers, especially those who skip the financial pages, knew little of Spitzer before his political downfall. But there’s a great deal more to know.
In 2002, as New York attorney general, Spitzer brought legal action against Merrill Lynch for promoting worthless stocks to retail markets to increase the stockbrokerage firms’ investment banking revenues. His efforts led to a global settlement of $1.4 billion by the 10 largest Wall Street firms.
In 2003, his team of investigators found that some mutual fund companies were letting preferred clients participate in “late trading,” allowing them to take advantage of lower prices after markets had closed.
He was prescient about Wall Street, in other words, long before the financial crisis that now affects us all. I’m not defending Spitzer or condoning his behavior, but like the rest of us, he is not only one thing. To those he investigated or brought down, he’s far worse than Client No. 9. To the everyday New Yorker on the street, who sees Spitzer as a crusader for the little guy, he’s a hero.
Ultimately, I decided that his obvious intelligence, insights and potential contributions outweighed his other record. As far as I’m concerned, especially given that he has stepped down from public office, the flaws that brought Spitzer down are between him and his family. For my part, I believe in redemption. I think most Americans do.
More to the point, I came to view the CNN offer as an opportunity to discuss things I care about. After 20-something years and more than 2,000 columns, I’ve come to realize that I speak for many who have no voice. Every now and then, I manage to say something sensible.
Since making that decision, I’ve spent more time with Spitzer, his wife, Silda, and the CNN team. I’ve walked down New York’s streets with the former governor and witnessed dozens in a matter of blocks smile, wave and step forward to shake his hand. The personal traits that elevated Spitzer to high office remain in place and are apparent.
He still has much to offer. Who wouldn’t like to hear his thoughts today on the financial reform legislation? In his recent Slate column, “The Incentives Catastrophe,” Spitzer explained how both Wall Street and the BP oil crisis were caused by the same flawed template: Risk was “incentivized” on the assumption that someone else would pay the tab for error. As Spitzer put it, we created a system of “socialized risk and privatized gain.” He makes a compelling case for reasonable regulation and oversight to create a more sensible balance between risk and gain.
This adventure is experimental for both of us. Live TV is unforgiving. There’s no delete button. With practice, we hope to overcome the inevitable pitfalls. I will continue to write my columns in the meantime.
Our hope as co-anchors is that we can advance the debate about the issues we all care about. Eliot Spitzer and I come from vastly different worlds and naturally we’ll have different perspectives, though we each expect to sway the other from time to time.
We are convinced that pragmatic solutions can be discovered without rancor and, in fact, with humor.
It is certainly worth a try.
E-mail nationally syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker at firstname.lastname@example.org.