"Oedipus is funny -- that's the structure of funny," Alan Alda's character declares in the film Crimes and Misdemeanors. "'Who did this terrible thing to our city?' 'Oh my god, it was me.' See? That's funny."
Judging by such a standard, the staggering news that ethics-crusader New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer has shattered his political career because he couldn't resist the allure of a high-priced hooker, is high comedy indeed.
No doubt, there is an element of tragedy in this tale. Spitzer's wife Silda, who was forced to stand by his side in a hasty press briefing yesterday afternoon, as well as his three daughters, who are old enough to follow the news, should have our compassion.
But Spitzer himself does not deserve an ounce of sympathy for the public humiliation he is set to endure, because he built his career on the public humiliation of others.
Back in 2002, as a wave of corporate scandals rocked Wall Street and the Securities and Exchange Commission was seen by some as too slow to respond, Spitzer cleverly seized on an opportunity to make his name. By broadly defining his role as New York's Attorney General and using any angle he could, Spitzer aggressively prosecuted corporate malfeasance, whether it was real or perceived.
HIS TARGETS WERE always unsympathetic -- insurance companies, mutual funds, Wall Street investment banks, and greedy CEOs -- and the victims were always average investors who lost money as a result of corporate skulduggery.
The media, which was clamoring for action and in no mood to empathize with big business, ate it up. They affectionately dubbed Spitzer the "Sheriff of Wall Street" and compared him to legendary mob-fighter Eliot Ness.
It never mattered whether companies or individuals actually did anything illegal, because his cases rarely made it to court. Wall Street investors abhor uncertainty more than anything else, and when publicly traded companies watched their stock prices crater amid a barrage of Spitzer-generated negative headlines, it was always in their best interests to reach a settlement to put the scandal behind them. On the few occasions when his targets did fight back, Spitzer's success rate was far less impressive.
Spitzer's arbitrary choice of targets highlighted his political opportunism. When Richard Grasso was forced to resign from his position as head of the New York Stock Exchange because Spitzer filed a lawsuit charging him with receiving excessive compensation, Spitzer also went after NYSE board member Ken Langone, a prominent Republican.
But he didn't lay a finger on Carl McCall, an influential New York Democrat, even though McCall served on the NYSE board as chief of the compensation committee that had approved the $140 million pay package that Spitzer deemed not only outrageous, but illegal.
THOSE WHO ARE TEMPTED to see Spitzer's "appointment" with a $5,000 prostitute as a private matter should remember Jack Grubman. The former star analyst at Salomon Smith Barney was forced to accept a lifetime ban from the securities industry as part of a as a larger $1.4 billion settlement Spitzer reached to combat the problem of research analysts publicly touting the stocks of companies that they were seeking investment banking business from.
While there was plenty to criticize in Grubman's behavior, over the course of the probe, he was publicly humiliated by the exposure of sexually-explicit emails he exchanged with a female client that were unearthed by Spitzer's office.
Spitzer's career as prosecutor was not only characterized by overzealousness, but by a sanctimonious attitude toward his enemies that helped mask his own shady dealings, including the fact that his wealthy father bankrolled his political career by questionable means.
He was elected governor in 2006 on a promise to restore ethics in New York State, but from the get-go he displayed the same arrogance he possessed as prosecutor. Shortly after taking office, he shouted to a Republican critic, "I'm a f - - - ing steamroller, and I'll roll over you and anybody else."
A few months later, Spitzer was reprimanded by Andrew Cuomo, his successor in the Attorney General's office, for using state police to dig up dirt on his political opponent, Republican Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno. After a Clintonesque public apology, Spitzer was able to emerge from the scandal, but as it turned out, the postman would ring twice.
THIS TIME THE SCANDAL involves one Kristen, "an American, petite, very pretty brunette, 5 feet 5 inches, and 105 pounds" who, according to a complaint and news reports, serviced him during a February trip to Washington, D.C.
Details in the complaint, including references to his account balance, suggest that Spitzer was a regular client of the illegal prostitution ring for which Kristen worked.
Even if Spitzer avoids criminal indictment, it is hard to see how he could survive politically given the distraction of daily news stories in New York tabloids. Much like the publicly traded companies he forced to settle to avoid negative news, or the big name CEO's he made quit, Spitzer will most likely have to resign to limit further embarrassment.
Some of the ironies are simply delicious. As this press release from the archives of the New York State AG's office reminds us, on April 7, 2004, then-AG Spitzer announced the indictment of 18 people linked to a ritzy escort service.
"This was a sophisticated and lucrative operation with a multi-tiered management structure," Spitzer said. "It was, however, nothing more than a prostitution ring, and now its owners and operators will be held accountable."
It's funny because it's true. If only Sophocles were around to make a show of it.
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