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Monday, March 24, 2008

Eliot Spitzer and the adversarial personality

By Dick Hirsch

Some people are by nature adversarial. They thrive on conflict. In my life I have worked with or closely observed people who fall into that category. They derive satisfaction, perhaps even joy, from defeating, perhaps even overwhelming, the perceived opposition or enemy.

Me? I don’t belong to that group. I’ve tried to make as objective an analysis as possible of my own behavior patterns and I have concluded that I am not adversarial.

What I am is competitive. I want to be first. As a newspaperman, I always wanted to get the story before the opposition. I still do. During my business career, I always wanted to discover the prospect and make the first sale before the others even knew the customer existed. During the years when I was producing a weekly TV interview program, I was constantly scanning the news, peering ahead, trying to sign up a newsworthy guest before the other stations realized there was a story to tell.

Yes, I wanted to be first. I enjoyed the competition. But when I succeeded I never felt like a gladiator and experienced any rush of superiority and feeling of pleasure at damaging a competitor.

Self assessment is supposed to be a beneficial exercise. I haven’t devoted much time to it, but I was motivated to try in the wake of the dramatic and sad departure from public life of Eliot Spitzer. Enough time has passed since his resignation following the revelation of his involvement with a prostitution ring that it is possible to consider his rise and fall in a more dispassionate manner.

Some people feel sorry for the former governor, even though he, as my grandmother used to say, “made his own bed.” Forced from office with few willing to defend him, his once brilliant political career was ruined and his family life shattered, perhaps beyond repair. And he was just 48 years old.

I always had ambivalent feelings about Spitzer. I admired his work and his aggressive tactics during his years as attorney general. He seemed to be determined to correct deficiencies, right wrongs and to prosecute those who were nimbly skirting the edges of legality. Some were small time grifters; others were Wall Street impresarios using sophisticated methods to reap huge profits for themselves, ill-gotten gains unavailable to rank and file investors who followed the rules.

I applauded all that activity as it was unfolding, but at the same time, Spitzer transmitted a message that I perceived as negative: he seemed to take particular pride and satisfaction, even enjoyment, in hurting his targets, ruining them, holding them up to public ridicule and disgrace.

In a word, he was adversarial. That may be a quality inherent in every prosecutor, but, just from watching his press conferences and announcements, I concluded that Spitzer seemed to gain particular pleasure from sending his targets crashing to earth. I found that aspect of his public persona to be distasteful. He seemed unable to adjust his personality even after his landslide election as governor, assuming he could dominate and dictate to the Legislature. He continued the adversarial pattern and failed.

On a different stage, I once worked with a newspaper editor who experienced glee whenever he was able to cause pain to others. He could be reckless and I don’t think he ever realized exactly how much damage a newspaper article could do to a person’s career and family. He loved the act of bragging about the exclusive disclosure, whether it was an issue of widespread community interest or the embarrassing story of a victimless crime which the authorities had conspired to ignore. He was a gladiator, most satisfied when he figuratively had his hands gripping the throat of his latest victim. He was a member in good standing of the adversary fraternity.

People were shocked at the disclosure of Spitzer’s patronizing of prostitutes and surely most disapproved of his hypocritical behavior. Many of those who voted for him had mixed emotions as they saw him ejected from office in disgrace, a once promising career in shambles.

There are many related stories yet to be written and opinions yet to be rendered. There have already been suggestions that Spitzer may have been the target of a plot, orchestrated by some of his many adversaries---individuals of influence who he had prosecuted. Conspiracy theories are likely to abound in the months and years ahead. How many shooters were there at Dealey Plaza that November day in Dallas, anyway?



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