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Power outage: the fall of Eliot Spitzer

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in Leaders & Managers,Workplace Communication

Shock quickly gave way to puzzlement this spring at why former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer would risk everything: money, power and attention.

The simple answer: Because he wanted more. He was greedy.

But there’s ample evidence that Spitzer had other problems, too.

The Peter Principle. He was so well suited to his previous job as attorney general that most New Yorkers decided he’d make a good chief executive. Fact is, he was lousy at the top job: shrill, micromanaging and shortsighted. His temper tantrums were particularly galling, given his executive role.

Technicolor hypocrisy. As New York’s renowned attorney general, Spitzer went after the same banks in which he’s now accused of laundering money. He crusaded against prostitution rings and fought for legislation that would shift the penalties for prostitution against the buyer.

Inability to play nice. The sword of righteousness works great when you’re hunting down crooks but not so hot when it’s turned on your own allies and public servants.

“He was much too angry at too many people and too many institutions to be effective,” says the head of the labor-backed Working Families Party, which had worked hard for Spitzer’s election. Nonetheless, when the party’s leaders met with him last fall to offer constructive criticism, the governor raged and cursed at them.

Recklessness. Maybe Spitzer knew he would be caught. His enemy Joe Bruno, majority leader of the state Senate, called Spitzer a bratty rich kid and liked to hint that Spitzer was unbalanced.

“He knew full well that he was being watched,” an aide says. “He even talked about it. He said: ‘If we ever stumble, they’ll be merciless.’ Those were his words.”

—Adapted from “The Talk of the Town,” Hendrik Hertzberg, Nick Paumgarten, The New Yorker, and “A Leader Recalled as Focused but Unable to Bend,” Danny Hakim, Michael Powell, The New York Times.

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