Journal of the Plague Year: An Insider’s Chronicle of Eliot Spitzer’s Short and Tragic Reign
By Lloyd Constantine
(Kaplan, 287 pages, $29.95)
With the vertiginous decline of the Democratic Party, a new genre seems to be making its appearance on the literary scene, namely, the memoir of a disillusioned aide to one of its major political figures. The latest entry into the sweepstakes is Lloyd Constantine, “former senior adviser” to the fallen governor of New York, Eliot Spitzer. The latter, it will be recalled, felt obliged to resign after a mere two years in office because federal agents accidentally came upon the fact that he was patronizing a high-end prostitution ring in New York and Washington, D.C., possibly paying for their services with illicit electronic cash transfers. Perhaps the whole affair would have had less devastating political costs — indeed, Spitzer might well have survived it — if he himself had not been so humorless, sanctimonious, and abrasive throughout his meteoric career. The man had a positive talent for making enemies. When the news of his scandal became known on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, there was spontaneous applause.
Inevitably one compares this book to the confessions of Andrew Young, John Edwards’s former aide, in The Politician (already reviewed in these pages). But whereas Young affords us a lurid look at his smarmy former boss and his Lady Macbeth-like consort, there is a troubling opaqueness to Journal of the Plague Year. We learn really very little about Spitzer as a person — what makes him tick, what he thinks when the television cameras are not on, or when he is relaxing in the privacy of friends (maybe he never does?). This is particularly regrettable since Constantine claims to be Spitzer’s closest male friend. The only quote in the whole book that gives us a sense of who Spitzer really is — in fact, Constantine repeats it twice — comes from an argument the governor had with the Republican (minority) leader of the state assembly. (“Listen, I am a f–king steamroller and I’ll roll over you and everybody else.”)
Thus people who buy this book expecting juicy National Enquirer revelations will be sorely disappointed. Most of the time the narrative is extremely tedious — like reading a plumbing contractor’s description of a major installation in an office building (with the important distinction that the plumbing — unlike the New York State government — would actually work). There are dollops of political sociology ici et là, some interesting, most not. There is a huge cast of characters we are expected to keep track of — most pass by in a blur. The closest thing to excitement is the chapter on Spitzer’s attempt to “get” state senator Joe Bruno, leader of the Republican majority in the state senate, by instructing (apparently) the state police to monitor his misuse of the state air-craft for personal as opposed to public purposes. You didn’t know that New York State had its own air fleet, including helicopters? Well, now you do!
The Bruno anecdote is useful only insofar as it illuminates the vindictive quality of the former governor — his tendency to personalize political differences and to seize the nuclear option when other more discreet and moderate measures might in fact produce just as good a result. “How could such an A+ student of government fail to recognize that success as governor required skill in, and respect for, consensus building, conciliation, and compromise?” Constantine asks. Maybe he didn’t know the governor as well as he claims to.
Readers of this book may be surprised to know that Spitzer and his aides regarded his election to the governorship in 2006 as a virtual prelude to the presidency. Constantine cites as evidence of the governor’s supposed appeal to a wide swath of voters the fact that he won the office with a 40 percent advantage over his Republican opponent. But after all, in New York, statewide elections for some time now have come to resemble those in the former German Democratic Republic, complete with a cardboard “opposition” candidate. Moreover, no governor of New York State has been elected to the presidency since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, and neither political party has nominated a New York governor since Thomas Dewey in 1948.
One point that constantine, a high-flying lawyer who bills at thousands of dollars an hour and vacations in Paris and Thailand, seems not to notice is that New York State — over-regulated, over-taxed, over-governed, over-patronage-distributed — has been hemorrhaging jobs for decades. The fiscal consequences of this should be obvious, but all Spitzer and his aides can think of is new ways to spend money — money that they don’t have and won’t have. Even Constantine admits that Spitzer’s $120.6 billion budget represented a growth rate twice that of inflation. The presumption was that the go-go good times on Wall Street and the rise in the value of real estate would somehow produce new revenues. Or perhaps not, who knows? As it is, after 12 years of Democrat Mario Cuomo and 12 of “moderate” Republican George Pataki (plus two of Spitzer) in the governor’s mansion, New York State is a huge white whale sinking into the swamp of bankruptcy.
Quite the most interesting revelation in this book has to do with the undisguised contempt of Spitzer and his people for Lieutenant Governor David Paterson. More than once Constantine suggests that the latter was clearly unfit for major state office. Yet after all, it was Spitzer who accepted him as a running mate. Could it be that the governor was encouraged to knock over the tracings of decency in his personal life on the basis that nobody would want Paterson in the governor’s mansion? Constantine tantalizes us with the prospect without confirming it. Unfortunately the unthinkable has come to pass, and — surprise, surprise! — the new governor shows no signs on wanting to bow out gracefully, much to the discomfort of the Democratic state machine and the White House. The A+ students of government weren’t so smart after all.