As part of a move to create a space for an “exchange of dialogue,” Patricia Duff founded the organization The Common Good. Her goal is to make sure that people are willing to keep an open ear and have conversations that “aren’t limited to sound bites.” The group has been the force behind numerous events. They recently hosted a preview screening of the documentary Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer. Duff told me that she had been a Spitzer supporter. “I think he did a lot of good work as Attorney General. This film is fodder for starting a discussion,” she said. A question and answer forum with director Alex Gibney was part of the evening.
Having written numerous articles about the Eliot Spitzer saga, its intersection with prostitution and human trafficking, and his reemergence in the public eye—from speaking appearances to a co-host position on the CNN nightly line up—I was interested in learning what the film would have to offer.
Gibney’s account is a story with a motley cast of characters that only a screenwriter could dream up. It is a political intrigue tale, missing only a definitive “Deep Throat” anchor. Perhaps the closest element to that is the actress who portrays “Angelina,” the primary woman that Spitzer had assignations with. (Despite her protracted presence in the public eye, Ashley Dupre had only one meeting with Spitzer.)
Spitzer is interviewed seated on a sofa, in comfortable and elegant surroundings. On topics related to Wall Street and the Governorship, he is extremely verbal and forthcoming. On matters requiring introspection, he is less articulate. We do learn about how he was raised by a father who translates as more forbidding than loving. His top lesson for his son was, “Don’t trust anyone.”
With references to Greek mythology (think hubris and exalted mortals with clay feet) the film intones, “No one expected him to go down like he did.” As the “Sheriff of Wall Street” whose mantra was “attack, attack, attack,” Spitzer’s premise was that Wall Street couldn’t be left to police itself. Spitzer saw himself as the people’s attorney, fighting to change a system through the law—which had turned a blind eye to white-collar crime.
Self-identifying as “a fucking steamroller,” Spitzer racked up an array of enemies. They included Joe Bruno, the former Republican Majority leader of the New York State Senate; Maurice R. Greenberg, the former chairman of A.I.G.; and former director of the NY Stock Exchange, Kenneth G. Langone. Eager to weigh in on the chain of events is Roger Stone, a flamboyant Republican political consultant, who delivers his insights with the nighttime Manhattan skyline as a backdrop.
On the dichotomy between Spitzer’s actions and the fact that as governor he worked to pass The Human Trafficking Law (June 6, 2007), little about this conundrum is addressed. There is a brief clip showing prominent anti-trafficking activists witnessing the bill being signed by Spitzer. Yet, more time is devoted to an interview with a sex worker involved in the “high-end” of the prostitution continuum who states flatly that women in this well-paying line of work are not abused victims. Rather, they like the checkbook net-gains. Gabney also includes a visual montage of other politicians whose reputations have been affected by “sex scandals.”
As for Spitzer’s explanation of his behavior, he likens himself to Icarus, describing his activities as a release that was “easier than a relationship.” Others suggest that Spitzer didn’t understand his own behavior. On days when his severe political and personal style would be out of control, his staffers would wearily suggest that his evil twin “Irwin” had shown up.
When taking questions from the audience about whether the coverage of the Spitzer imbroglio was “skewed,” Gibney said, “There was salacious excitement that the ‘Sheriff of Wall Street’ was part of this escort service.” He underscored that “other details weren’t looked at,” and suggested, “Federal investigators don’t get interested in this stuff [escort services].” What was the purpose of the investigation? Was there corruption in the Justice Department? Did United States attorney Michael Garcia abuse his power? These were the questions that Gibney was targeting. He explained, “The film is dark. It asks all of us to examine how we judge public officials.”
The movie consistently points to Spitzer’s knowledge about the inner workings of Wall Street, his understanding of the economy in terms of TARP and subprime mortgages, and his prescience about the Wall Street meltdown. After the Q & A, I approached Gibney to ask him if he had reached out to anyone in the anti-trafficking community for their thoughts on the Spitzer situation, particularly as they had viewed Spitzer as an ally who understood their issues. His answer was, “No.” Gibney in turn asked me if I equated the Emperor’s Club V.I.P. with the sexual trafficking of children. He related the fact that he had interviewed people in the “high end of the escort trade who didn’t feel in need of protecting.” That singular point of view was represented in the documentary, with no parallel mention of the debate about the demand for paid sex, or whether it is acceptable to purchase another human being.
About the story line he had shaped, Gibney said, “I want people to come to their own conclusions.” Client 9 delves into an interesting set of circumstances. However, it is not built upon the questions that I brought to the film.
In the end, I would have to agree with Spitzer’s reason for his “rise and fall.” As he says without emotional affect, “There’s all sorts of rumors about bringing me down. My view is I brought myself down.”