Spoiling for a Fight: The Rise of Eliot Spitzer.
Savvy media manipulator Eliot Spitzer has appeared so regularly in the news in recent years that Brooke Masters, a New York-based staff writer for the Washington Post who covers financial services and white-collar crime, realized a journalist's take on him could be a book--long before Spitzer was elected governor of New York last November.
Spoiling for a Fight covers Spitzer's life and career, but it's not a biography. While Masters says that Spitzer was "candid and accessible" and encouraged his family and friends to be open and helpful, her book whips through his wealthy background, schooling, marriage, and children in one chapter ("A Man in a Hurry") to get to her real task of documenting his life in the New York attorney general's office.
The publisher notes that Masters had extensive access to her subject and almost everyone around him, from "three or four dozen lawyers, executives, and directors at companies that Spitzer targeted, to ex-girlfriends and family members, to current and former national securities regulators and prosecutors who have either worked with or butted heads with Spitzer"--and she quotes them all. (Her work is carefully footnoted.)
"The conclusions and analysis in this book are mine alone," Masters writes, but she doesn't really conclude anything. Instead, she recounts a series of events in Spitzer's career in such detail that it makes it difficult for the reader to weave them together in a way that might lead to some conclusions. For example, in her scrutiny of these events, she takes such pains to report what the various parties think that the reader gets overloaded with names, titles, and who said what great quote when.
Perhaps as a financial reporter, Masters is intimately familiar with AGs and deputy AGs, brokers and analysts, and the tiers of government workers at agencies like the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission--so much so that naming and introducing each one organizes and focuses events for her.
But her insider's approach--despite her stated intention to write "a tale that will appeal to readers who are not legal or financial junkies"--requires the lay reader to concentrate. Just grasping discussions of complicated and possibly illegal financial maneuvers like "spinning" (when CEOs get stock in a company before it goes public and its shares increase in value) is a real effort.
But I buckled down and read the book--feeling sympathy for Spitzer's staff, whom the author describes toiling nights, weekends, and during vacations to ready cases--because I've been monitoring Spitzer tilting at corporate wrongdoing. Who hasn't?
Most of the suits I've followed get short shrift--those involving power plants and the Clean Air Act, supermarket delivery worker exploitation, guns and criminal activity, sweatshops in the garment district--and are relegated to one chapter of the book. They're reported, but they're not the lead story. Spitzer's war on Wall Street fills the book.
Masters begins by explaining what drives her subject. In the first chapter, she describes Spitzer's role models: Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressives, who she says believed that ridding politics and financial markets of corruption and giving power back to the people would create a capitalist society that could work for everyone, rich or poor.
Like the Progressives, Spitzer used old precedents in new ways--notably, New York's 1921 general business law known as the Martin Act and its amendments, which provided the basis for many of the attorney general's legal claims. His first stab with the Martin Act, along with his use of the media and public criticism of other regulators, proved a "harbinger" of his next seven years in office, Masters writes.
Then she turns to Wall Street, detailing Spitzer's first case against an equity firm for redlining in Brooklyn and following with the cases filed against research analysts for misleading small-time investors, late trading or "market timing," executives' oversized compensation, insurance companies paying "contingent commissions" to brokers for referrals, bid-rigging, spinning, and more.
Not until page 191 does Masters address what obviously timed the publication of this book--and she approaches it obliquely. She uses someone involved in the case against former New York Stock Exchange chairman Richard Grasso to announce what every reader knows: that "like almost everyone else in the controversy, [the person] knew that Spitzer was interested in running for governor."
Perhaps Masters is copying her subject's own style. When Spitzer announced his run 23 months ahead of time, she writes, "he made a series of low-key phone calls to political reporters around the state to announce that he would be a candidate for governor in 2006."
Well into the book, the "Foot Faults" chapter (named for the fact that Spitzer is a keen tennis player) covers stumping and some campaign financing mis-steps. In the final chapter, "To Dare Mighty Things," Masters likens Spitzer again to Roosevelt, to Thomas Dewey, and to other New York men who shared Progressive values: Alfred E. Smith, Nelson Rockefeller, and Mario Cuomo. Even after Spitzer's election to the governor's mansion, his battles as the state's attorney general continue to produce headlines: The CEO of telecommunications company McLeod USA, Inc., recently agreed to return millions he was accused of earning from practicing spinning. Spitzer's office filed the suit in 2002.
Although Masters sometimes mires the story in too much detail and tends to focus more attention than this reader would have liked on Spitzer's Wall Street cases, Spoiling for a Fight is an insightful study of a man and his mission. Masters's account of a man who jumps into the fray when his gut tells him something is amiss, trumpets what he thinks he's found so that everyone will hear, and doesn't back down--or apologize much--is a knight's tale.
REBECCA PORTER is an associate editor of TRIAL.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2007|
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