How The Mighty Have Fallen - Again

Paul Greenberg
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Posted: Mar 17, 2008 12:01 AM
How The Mighty Have Fallen - Again

Hu-bris - from the Greek - overweening pride or self-confidence; arrogance. -Webster's

Americans now have one more definition of hubris: Eliot (Ness) Spitzer, the crusading attorney general, scourge of Wall Street, nemesis of corporate titans, and, as of today, former governor of New York. And, oh yes, former superdelegate to the Democratic National Convention.

A "colossus of New York state politics," the "Almanac of American Politics" called Eliot Spitzer. Now, if Webster's needs an illustration to go alongside its definition of hubris, it can run his picture.

Tell it in Gotham, publish it in the New York Times: How the mighty have fallen. It's an old, old story, yet somehow it keeps being news. In our garish times, it's front-page, 24/7, prime-time, blogged and internetted news. The story may be old, but our age specializes in supersized, capital-H Humiliation.

Eliot Spitzer isn't the first high-powered pol to talk - and act - as if he were invulnerable, throwing threats around the way the way we ordinary mortals breathe in and out. He's only the latest. "Listen, I'm a steamroller," as he once told a leading legislator in Albany.

The man acted as if he were untouchable; a decent sense of self-restraint, of moral humility, of simple proportion, was for others. To quote Peter King, the Republican congressman from a Long Island district: "I've never known anyone who was more self-righteous and unforgiving than Eliot Spitzer." Now he's been brought low by a cheap sex scandal, however expensive his tastes.

The list of Eliot Spitzer's prosecutorial targets would compose a Who's Who of American business. Some royally deserved their comeuppance, but many didn't. Yet they were all caught in the same net. Those he couldn't convict, he would force into expensive settlements. Reputations were ruined, corporations destroyed. Eliot Spitzer was an equal-opportunity bully. Anyone who stood up to him could expect to be threatened.

When the former chairman of Goldman Sachs - John C. Whitehead - wrote a piece in the Wall Street Journal critical of the crusading prosecutor, he says he got a phone call Mr. Spitzer. "I will be coming after you," Mr. Whitehead says he was told. "You will pay the price."

Now it is Eliot Spitzer who is paying the price. Fate, or the gods, or maybe just the nature of man has caught up with him. Pride - overweening, arrogant and very human pride - has gone before another fall. From another great height.

But let it be noted that the man did fess up, even if he didn't have much choice about it. He didn't try to brazen it out ("I never had sexual relations with that woman") or play word games, let alone testify falsely under oath. He looked straight into the cameras as he apologized. ("I have disappointed and failed to live up to the standard I expected of myself.") And he vowed to atone. ("I must now dedicate some time to regain the trust of my family.")

He offered no excuses, made no play for sympathy, did not seek to blame some vast right-wing conspiracy for his predicament. One wishes the formerly mighty would leave their wives out of these acts of public contrition, but except for that gratuitous detail, Mr. Spitzer's was a manful exit.

But what is one to make of the reaction to his fall? Oh, the audio-visual sneers on the television talk shows. They who once cheered him now jeer. Then there was the unholy glee on the floor of the New York stock exchange. Trading came to a halt as jubilation broke out. The Schadenfreude was thick as the Sunday tabloids. How they hooted. It was embarrassing to watch.

Somehow the oh-so-measured analysis of the higher class of pundits was even worse. Their subtext seemed to be: What could the man have been thinking? Thank God for not making me like him, for I'm much too smart, too canny, too prudent ever to wind up like him. As if hubris were something safely confined to others, and not inseparable from the human condition.

A little charity might have been too much to hope for, but a little humility would not have been out of order - or at least a little fear of what fate has in store for those who think themselves invincible, and take joy in the downfall of others. Yet these celebrants seemed unable to help themselves. The fate of Eliot Spitzer had taught them nothing.

"The horror for us, as it was for the Greeks, is precisely to see that an Oedipus or a Creon can so easily be ourselves." -Paul Roche, in his Introduction to "The Oedipus Plays of Sophocles"