Alex Gibney’s new film Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer tells the story of one of the most dramatic falls from political power in the last decade. Eliot Spitzer, attorney general and then governor of New York, was born into wealth, went to the best schools and then, rather than join the status quo of the upper classes, used his talent and acumen to root out corruption on Wall Street and in Albany. He was possibly on his way to the White House, but we know what happened after that. Client 9 tells this story in detail, not only anchoring the film in interviews with Spitzer himself, but also with some of his most powerful enemies. I sat down with Gibney in his film distributor’s office.
Williams Cole (Rail): Take us back to who Eliot Spitzer was at the top of his career.
Alex Gibney: At the top of his game Spitzer was the crusading attorney general who had made it his mission to try to bring a sense of equity to the political economy. He felt the power structure in America had become unbalanced and powerful corporate interests were aggressively taking advantage of average Americans in ways that were fundamentally unfair. I think he used the Attorney General’s office in a way that hadn’t really been used before to try to put an end to that, both in a real direct way but also kind of symbolically. It wasn’t just Wall Street; he was going after polluters by using the power of the state to file an interstate lawsuit to stop acid rain; he went after pharmaceutical makers. Then he went after Wall Street and white collar crime. People had not been nearly as aggressive as Spitzer had been in terms of pursuing white collar crime. He was good at it and he was also good at explaining very complicated crimes in ways that most people could understand, which was very important. But I think he made a lot of enemies both because he was going after this kind of corporate crime but also because he could be a bully; his methods were brusque. He intended to force systemic change so he was purposely trying to embarrass people, and people don’t like to be embarrassed.
Rail: Was he also motivated by ambition for political power?
Gibney: I don’t think there was any doubt that he was ambitious and his actions were making him a very powerful state figure and also a national figure because Wall Street is a national axis of power. But I think he truly believed, as a student of the political economy, that it had become deeply unbalanced. As a result I think this was very much a part of his belief in fairness and restoring a sense of economic opportunity.
Rail: So after he was then elected governor, how did it look for him?
Gibney: He was on his way to becoming the first Jewish president. I think his polling numbers were very good and very important in the sense that few Democrats poll better among men than women. But he was kind of a law and order liberal. That appealed to men so it made him a very scary figure for Republicans; this was a guy that wanted to punch back and punch hard. He was on a rocket. Outside of Barack Obama he may have been the most important Democratic political figure in the country. But many people had it out for him and felt his methods were unscrupulous. He pissed a lot of people off.
Rail: Do you think there was a naïveté in the way he thought he could change such entrenched systems as Wall Street and Albany?
Gibney: I don’t think it was naïve. I think he did actually promote a significant amount of change. He may have been naïve about the number of enemies he was creating though. I think he was reckless and careless. He knew he couldn’t afford to falter and he did. I think he was unprepared for the role of governor in terms of what it takes to negotiate politically and how sometimes human relationships necessarily become part of the political process. He wanted issues to carry the day and I’m sympathetic to that view because now everything is about relationships. Whatever happened to the issues? He had a hard time doing what good politicians do, which is to create a situation where you insinuate your idea in the mind of somebody else so that they can take credit for it and thereby champion it. That turns out to be pretty smart politically because they take ownership of it even though it’s what you want so you can stand back and say, “Oh right, good idea.” His tendency to embarrass people undermined him particularly as Governor. As attorney general he had subpoena power and part of what he was trying to do was force change, but in Albany you need votes. It’s hard to embarrass people publicly and get them to vote for you.
Rail: Yet there was a side to Spitzer that was quite personable. In the film, Joe Bruno talks about getting multiple sympathy calls from him when Bruno’s wife was ill.
Gibney: In that area, I think Spitzer was actually pretty good. He was able to compartmentalize to an unbelievable extent.
Rail: Compartmentalization seems to be a recurring theme in his character.
Gibney: A very big theme in his character. The Bruno episode is a good example. Another is his pursuit of people like businessman Ken Langone; he would beat them up publicly because he felt that was his job and what he should be doing. But then he would go up to them at dinner and say “Hey Ken, no hard feelings.” Ken’s view was: there are hard feelings! He took it personally. I can understand how they would, and I think Spitzer would always underestimate how personally people took it. This stuff is personal. Maybe he thinks it shouldn’t be, but it is. That’s where he had a problem, particularly in Albany.
Rail: Given what happened in 2008, with the unraveling of what we saw was happening on Wall Street—a near cataclysm with worldwide repercussions—do you think Spitzer has been vindicated on some level?
Gibney: I don’t know that he was vindicated, but I think if we look back we can see that he was onto many of the same people who were at the heart of this economic meltdown. He was saying, “There are some big problems here, there are problems at A.I.G. He may not have spotted the extent of the credit default swap problem, which really hadn’t taken off until after 2005, but he spotted the fact that there was a lot of number manipulation going on at A.I.G. and Merrill Lynch; he spotted big conflict of interest problems and he was even talking about some of the mortgage related issues when he was governor. So we must realize he was really onto this early and it’s a shame that he allowed himself to be taken out right at the moment when everyone could have used that voice.
Rail: Because there really weren’t many others putting the spotlight on these issues.
Gibney: Very few. You have to look around and say, who else was doing it? From a law enforcement standpoint, at least in New York, the Department of Justice, particularly the S.E.C., was a joke—really a joke. It was designed by the Bush administration to not be a regulator, to be hands off. That’s why they missed any number of things and it was utterly discredited. The Department of Justice too let the order of the day become deregulation: “letting the markets regulate themselves.”
Rail: Even with all that’s come out since 2008, it still blows my mind to think about the depth of what was going on behind closed doors on Wall Street. He was one of the few trying to force these issues into the public. Was that the beginning of his end rather than Albany? Was going after Wall Street something that politicians just shouldn’t do? Was this a lesson?
Gibney: Hopefully that’s not the lesson to be learned here because we see what happens when the markets are left to regulate themselves.
Rail: Another major theme in the film is the difference between sex scandals that happen to Republicans and scandals that happen to a Democratic figure like Eliot Spitzer. Why does it seem the Republicans get away with it more? It seems ironic.
Gibney: I guess Democrats tend to resign a little bit more often than Republicans do. Clinton didn’t resign, he was Democrat and I think that was one of the things Republicans hated him for: acting like a Republican. The Republican point of view is: pray to God and then move on. You know, “Oh God, I committed a terrible crime, terrible mistake, I’m sorry, now let’s move on, and don’t talk about it again.” That’s what happened with David Vitter and Newt Gingrich; that’s what happened with John Ensign and Mark Sanford. That seems to be the trope. Yet I’m not here to argue that you can’t move on from a sex scandal; I hope you can. The idea that somehow Eliot Spitzer is uniquely hypocritical is wrong.
Rail: What about Roger Stone, the infamous Republican operative with the tattoo of Nixon on his back and a penchant for sex clubs? What was his role in this?
Gibney: Roger Stone is a political operative who’s paid to continue to embarrass and smear Eliot Spitzer; that’s his job. So it is not surprising that he continues to try to do so. I don’t know that there was a Democratic operative who was paid to continue to try to embarrass Newt Gingrich. From afar it certainly looks like the Republican Party tends to play dirtier than the Democratic Party, and it doesn’t seem to bother them. In a way, not the playing dirty but the playing tough is one of the things the Republicans feared about Eliot Spitzer. His enemies marshaled a lot of resistance and they went after him.
Rail: And what about the black socks? I mentioned Spitzer to my wife the other day and the first thing she remembered about the scandal was that he screwed with his high black socks on.
Gibney: I’m fairly convinced that the black socks thing is a fiction. A hallucination if you want to be generous. But it comes form a story that an unidentified woman supposedly told Roger Stone in a sex club; it was allegedly transmitted to the F.B.I. through a letter but we don’t know to whom it was written and the F.B.I. denies ever having received it. Stone obsessively promotes this story every chance he gets, and now with his new charge, Kristin Davis, he aggressively promotes it again: black socks, black socks, black socks. He takes authorship of an amusing story which continues to have currency just because it is funny and it does seem fitting for an uptight figure. It would be funny if it were true. Everyone treats it as if it were true, and that is Roger Stone’s great victory. He managed to insinuate it into the clip log early on. If you go back and look at the clips from journalists it’s there: “Oh right, the black socks, I’ll use it in my piece, brilliant!”
Rail: So from your point of view, was it a hubristic thing?
Gibney: I think there is no doubt that there was hubris. It starts when he’s at the peak of his power. In 2006 he’s attorney general, he’s on top of the world, and he knows he’s going to be governor. That’s when it starts, so yeah hubris was there.
Rail: I know you get asked this question a lot, but for God’s sake, why did he do it?
Gibney: I asked him why and he wasn’t sure that he even knows why. You can call it a fatal flaw, you can call it hubris, you can call it a rapacious urge. But I think he just went for it without even thinking about the connotations such as how many people he would disappoint or maybe he just imagined he could get away with it. It’s kind of hard to think about it, really.
Rail: Do you think that there will be some forgiveness for him? Will he perhaps return to politics?
Gibney: One of the things that the film tackles is that on the one hand, he had sex, on the other hand, look at what he did from the public policy perspective. Whatever he did in terms of having sex with an escort was an issue between himself, the escorts, and his wife. That’s not our issue; our issue is what he did as a public figure. Going forward we have to ask if this is how we are going to hold our public figures to account: to figure out what kind of private problems they have? Or should we focus on what they do for us? Seems to me it is the latter.
Rail: That is a fundamental paradox in America that you don’t find in, say, France. If Spitzer was able to kind of keep doing what he was doing, I don’t think the economic crisis would have been averted, but maybe some reform would have happened beforehand.
Gibney: He would have been a powerful voice in the midst of that crisis. He gets taken out just before it happens. The timing is odd.