The great undoing of Eliot Spitzer

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Eliot Spitzer was the politician who tried to help us all but couldn't help himself, and the subject of an absorbing new film by Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney. Here, he tells us what made Spitzer such documentary dynamite.

As attorney general and then governor of New York, Eliot Spitzer's tough stance on widespread financial misdemeanours earned him the nickname "The Sheriff Of Wall Street": so when he was revealed to be "Client 9" of a high-class prostitution ring — and resigned shortly afterwards — many powerful people weren't sorry to see him go. Alex Gibney, whose previous films include Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room and Taxi To The Dark Side, turned his cameras on Spitzer for a fascinating new film, out on Friday. Esquire sat down with the director on a recent UK visit, to get the low-down on the man who could have been America's first Jewish President.

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ESQUIRE: Eliot Spitzer is well-known in America, but why should people over here go and see your film?

ALEX GIBNEY: In some ways, parts of his story are pretty universal. Certainly the British are not unfamiliar with political sex scandals so in that way I think it should resonate. Also there's a larger sense in which Eliot Spitzer himself translates, because he was the Sheriff of Wall Street, which was a global phenomenon, and when it crashed we all crashed.

ESQ: What made you decide his story was worthy of a film?

AG: I was offered it, and it took me about a week to decide to do it. Everybody was talking about him for all sorts of reasons, like: what about the timing? Why is it that he goes down as the financial markets are going down? And then there were the sexual politics: if somebody's unfaithful does it matter whether it's a hooker or an affair? Why does the wife always have to stand there next to the husband? Why doesn't he stand there by his own damned self? Does it matter what he does off time? Is that important to us?

ESQ: Do you think he got an unusually tough time from the American media?

AG: I think he's had a tougher time in a way because he held himself to account more. A lot of politicians just stand up, say, "I sinned and I've prayed to God Almighty and hope that He forgives me" and then they move on. What was worse: Spitzer or Clinton? Clinton actually broke the law, because it turns out oral sex is illegal in the District of Columbia. It's not a law that's enforced much because if it was politics would probably shut down. The fact was: Clinton got a blow-job in the Oval Office by an intern working under his control, while he was doing the country's business; Spitzer at least had the good sense to do it off the job and with his own money.

ESQ: Why do you think Clinton was able to survive and Spitzer wasn't?

AG: One of Spitzer's problems, unlike Clinton, was he didn't make many friends, which as it turns out in politics is more important than you would think. You'd think it's all about principles, issues. It turns out to be a lot about how many friends you have. Clinton had a lot of friends, and they supported him and he weathered the storm. But Spitzer, when he asked some of the political leaders would they support him they said no, they won't. Because he had pissed them all off.

ESQ: Quite a few of his enemies, including Republican Senator Joe Bruno and venture capitalist Ken Langone, agreed to be in your film. Were you surprised?

AG: Sometimes interviews are like a ripple effect — if you get one others will follow. Some were motivated because they hated Spitzer so much, and when he first went down and was totally devastated, what better time to kick your enemy?

ESQ: How did Spitzer respond to the difficult questions?

AG: There was one time when I probed too deeply: his brow furrows, a dark cloud suddenly comes over his head, and you can see just a trace of the Spitzer temper. I remember one day he talked at length about AIG [the insurance group that was bailed out by the Federal Reserve in 2008], something he was really interested in. Then I said, "And now I want to talk about the Emperors Club [the escort service he used]." We'd been talking for two hours and he looked at his watch and says, "OK, I've got five minutes." One time I called him back and said "You're not well served and I'm not well served by not confronting some of these issues a little more directly." He said, "Why should I do this? Why should I put my family through the pain of recalling that?" I said, "Explain to me why it would be a bad thing for you to explain to your family why you did what you did?" He said, "OK, I get that."

ESQ: Your film seems to take a mostly positive view of Spitzer.

AG: Generally positive, though there was a version of the film that was a lot more positive and we went back and toughened it up. You have to admit, what was he thinking? He was a guy that was famous for being law and order, and he's buying escorts after hours. You're thinking, With all that you know about your enemies, and all the supporters that you have, you were doing that?

ESQ: Do you think he could have been President if he'd kept his trousers on?

AG: I don't think he could be President now. I think the ship has sailed on that one. But he's now the host of a nightly news talk show and I think a lot of people looked at him on that show went, "Jeez, he's pretty smart." You can see that really clearly. I think there probably is a political comeback in him. He wants it: whether he can get it remains to be seen.

Client 9: The Rise And Fall Of Eliot Spitzer is out in cinemas on Friday