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More Mr. Nice Guy

By Richard Reeves

SAG HARBOR, N.Y. -- I began last Tuesday at the local 7-Eleven store, picking up the morning papers. Two guys came up behind me, looking at front-page photos of our governor, Eliot Spitzer. One said: "That S.O.B. is finally getting a taste of his own medicine!"

The story so far: New York's self-righteous, micro-managing, golden boy governor, a Democrat, is in big trouble because his two top assistants got caught using the state police to secretly investigate the use of state planes by the Republican speaker of the assembly, a likable standard-issue hack named Joseph Bruno. Then the information and a good deal of innuendo about federal investigations of the speaker was leaked to the Albany Times-Union.

Spitzer, famed for knowing everything, denies he knew anything about what his chief of staff and communications director were doing. Few New Yorkers seem to believe that.

I was on my way into "the city," New York, that is, for an invitation-only "Conversation With Sen. Barack Obama" sponsored by Time-Warner. The audience of a hundred or so people -- "movers and shakers," according to the New York Post -- was immediately informed that the session was off-the-record. The buffet afterward, however, was not, and we all began asking each other, "What do you think?"

"I'm not sure he's mean enough to be president," said James Greenfield, a former assistant managing editor of The New York Times who served as a young assistant secretary of state under President Kennedy. "Now Jack Kennedy, there was a mean guy."

True. Kennedy was ruthless when he had to be or wanted to be. Maybe Barack is, maybe not. I don't know. Hillary Clinton, I know, can be a mean one, and so can Rudy Giuliani. But many New Yorkers think Spitzer, who has certainly thought about being president himself someday, is meaner than either of those two.

There is, however, this about mean guys: It's fine when they're on top, but there are a lot of people waiting to be the second to kick them on the way down. Nice guys may finish last, as baseball manager Leo Durocher once said, but folks give them more room, the benefit of doubt, if they run into trouble.

No one is likely to give Spitzer a break. Ken Auletta of The New Yorker, who used to dabble in New York politics as a campaign manager, put it this way: "It's tough for Spitzer; he's never been lucky enough to learn by losing."

In fact, he did lose in his first run for state attorney general in 1994 at the age of 35. What he seemed to learn then was that he would have to spend even more of his father's (real estate) millions. He did just that and won by 25,000 votes in 1998. He then settled back into a life of big numbers, which had begun with a 1590 SAT score, getting him into Princeton, and a perfect LSAT score, which got him into Harvard Law School.

As attorney general, he moved on to collect billions in settlements for the state, mostly from aggressive civil prosecution of Wall Street firms. He also took criminal action against executives of those firms, earning him some powerful enemies, most notably John Whitehead, former chairman of Goldman, Sachs and deputy secretary of state under President Reagan, who criticized Spitzer over some of those prosecutions in an opinion article published by The Wall Street Journal in 2005.

Then, according to Whitehead, Spitzer called him and said: "Mr. Whitehead, it's now a war between us and you've fired the first shot. I will be coming after you. You will pay the price. This is only the beginning, and you will pay dearly for what you have done. You will wish you had never written that letter."

Spitzer has denied he said all that, but it was consistent with the style he perfected in Albany. He calls it "constructive tension." Others call it bullying. He was, however, on balance spectacularly successful, winning re-election as attorney general with more than 66 percent of the vote in 2002 and winning the governorship with 69 percent of the vote last year.

And now? He may have given away more than he knew a couple of years ago on Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report," when he joked that he was always "the enforcer" when he played soccer as a kid: "You play hard, you play rough, and hopefully you don't get caught."

He may have gotten caught this time.

Copyright 2007 Universal Press Syndicate

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