It seems strange to say that Eliot Spitzer is back, since he was hardly gone.
The hard-charging former New York governor resigned in disgrace just over a year ago, and back then it seemed likely that he would be remembered more for his hookups with hookers than for the ferocious and high-profile pursuit of white-collar criminals as New York's attorney general that won him national headlines as "the Sheriff of Wall Street."
But these days Spitzer is back in the public eye – and not for his escapades as Client 9. He’s become a columnist for Slate and a commentator in the media, weighing in on the economic crisis and AIG. He made his return to network TV on the Today show, where he spent less than three-and-a-half minutes discussing the scandal and its aftermath before Matt Lauer moved on to questions about the financial markets. And on MSNBC’s Morning Joe earlier this week he talked about credit-default swaps and the challenges of being a governor in tough financial times. With the advice and support of friends, and without the aid of a hired image-repair guru, Spitzer has put himself back in the public eye – though not yet in the political mix.
If there’s a textbook for scandal-scarred politicians on the art of the recovery, surely Spitzer has surely read it; if there isn’t, he might consider penning one.
Democratic pollster and strategist Celinda Lake says she was “surprised” to see Spitzer back so quickly, but notes that he has been doing all the right things – starting with taking responsibility for what he did wrong. Spitzer resigned from office just days after the scandal broke, apologized to his family and the people of New York, and blamed no one but himself for what he called his "private failings." After leaving office, he went to work for his father's real estate company, went into couples therapy with his wife, and stayed out of the headlines.
“The American public really believes in second chances,” Lake says, as long as you “don’t argue with them about the fact that you are guilty — and you pay a price.”
Or, as Republican strategist Mark McKinnon puts it: "The truth is, voters are actually pretty forgiving. As long as you fall on your sword, crawl over broken glass and wear black for a year."
Just ask former Ohio Rep. Bob Ney, who went to jail after pleading guilty to taking illegal gifts from lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
After entering his plea, Ney issued a statement that said in part, “I accept responsibility for my actions, and I am prepared to face the consequences of what I have done.”
Last week, just eight months after his release, he signed a deal for his own radio show.
Notes Democratic strategist Donna Brazile: “It’s a process of both humiliation and also grace.”
After admitting wrongdoing and paying the freight, says Republican strategist Ed Rollins, the next step for those who don’t have a jail sentence to serve is to lay low. “Get your profile down, go off and do something else. I think that’s important,” he says.
He puts forward former Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton as perhaps the two best examples of politicians who managed to rehabilitate their tarnished images: Nixon’s books and commentary helped resurrect him from political purgatory after Watergate, while Clinton distanced himself from Monica Lewinsky and impeachment through his work with his global foundation.
Sometimes distance and time are themselves enough to allow a public figure to return from a fall from favor. “Time heals a lot of wounds,” Rollins says. “And I think to a certain extent people forget over time, ‘What was that scandal? Why was it important?’” Rollins cites former House Speaker Newt Gingrich as an example of someone whose scandal simply lost its power as its context receded. “In the case of Gingrich, the fact that he left his wife and married an intern while attacking Clinton – that goes by the wayside because no one cares about Clinton’s infidelity any more,” he says.
Spitzer, who even before the scandal had gone in just over a year from a highly popular attorney general to a governor with a low-thirties approval rating, has continued to receive rough press in his home state as his profile has risen, with the city's two tabloids marking each new appearance of the ex-gov with a new round of mocking headlines and shots of Ashley Dupré in a bikini.
Nationally, though, the cooling-off period has been shortened somewhat by the economic crisis; Lake says Spitzer’s former role as the “Sheriff of Wall Street” has made him a natural expert on issues the public is more interested in than ever before. “I don’t think he could have a more ideal time” for a comeback, she says. “I think the issue gave Spitzer a unique platform. If he were talking about family medical leave, I think he’d have a harder time.”
Indeed, that distinction gets at one of the central factors in whether a disgraced pol can reclaim public credibility: Does the “crime” go to the essence of the politician’s image and expertise, or is it something that can be put aside in the public mind? Rollins says the one thing it is nearly impossible for a politician to recover from is advocating one thing and doing the opposite. “It’s always the hypocrisy that does these people in,” he says.
While it might be hard to convince people to take him seriously as a prosecutor again, his views on Wall Street can be more easily separated from his private indiscretions.
Not everyone is so lucky. When asked whether someone like Rod Blagojevich was a candidate for a comeback, Rollins assessed the former Illinois governor’s chances thusly:
“Two years from now he and Hulk Hogan will be wrestling each other to raise money for their legal defense funds,” he said.