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Back So Soon?

Why Eliot Spitzer's attempt to be taken seriously again won't work--and doesn't deserve to.

For anybody familiar with Eliot Spitzer’s writings and speeches, the ex-governor’s 1,100-word debut of his new Slate column on December 3 was pure Spitzerese: dry, dense, logical, pedagogic. “Almost everyone overlooked a news item,” he starts out, explaining how GE Capital’s purchase of Chinese-produced airplanes is a telling reminder of the “structural problems that are causing economic power to shift away from the United States.”

That piece and its follow-up, in which the Spitzer suggests a more market-oriented Big Three bailout, are notable for his (or his editor’s) avoidance of an adversarial tone. In the first piece, he doesn’t mention one person by name or single out a Wall Street firm, and he concludes not with a heads-must-roll edict but with a dull proposal for a “return to an era of vibrant competition among multiple, smaller entities.”

The sober tone of the biweekly column, and its decidedly not-salacious subject matter--“It'll be heavily about the financial crisis and fixing financial markets and the economy generally," Slate Group editor-in-chief Jacob Weisberg told The New York Observer--suggest that, less than nine months after he resigned as governor of New York following revelations that he paid for sex with prostitutes, Spitzer seeks to regain respectability. He wants people to take him seriously and listen to his ideas. He wants to insert himself into the great debates of our time and influence policy. In short, he wants to matter (again).

But is he going about his rehabilitation in the right way? Will attempted extrication from tabloid hell be successful--and does it deserve to be? While nobody knows the secret to rebounding from a collapse as spectacular as the one that befell the Sheriff of Wall Street, an early consensus has emerged that Spitzer is botching his comeback.

The problem isn’t that New Yorkers and others don’t want him to succeed. Whether in sports, drama, or politics, people love comebacks--the deeper the hole to climb out of the better. But a comeback, especially for a scandal-tarred politician, must follow set guidelines and steps of progression. You can’t skip ahead. Spitzer’s problem is that he isn’t playing by the rules.

That’s the opinion of Howard Rubenstein, dean of New York City’s public relations industry, who says Spitzer “may be premature in writing the column and taking the step forward that way publicly.” Rubenstein, who once represented Spitzer’s father, says the former governor “ought to sit back and ask himself the question: What else do I have to do before I make an obvious move for public attention?”

For one, Spitzer has yet to convince the public that he’s actually sorry. When he resigned in March, he faced the cameras and said he had “begun to atone for my private failings.” Since then, while privately apologizing to some friends and colleagues, Spitzer has made little effort to publicly show his remorse, and people have noticed. “He’s missing the hurt he caused everybody, the hopes that were dashed, and the fact that the entire state government ground to a halt,” one of his former senior aides told me.

Rubenstein advises Spitzer to avoid submitting himself to a squirm-inducing television interview, like the one Mel Gibson gave Diane Sawyer two years ago. “You never know where it’s going,” he says. Instead, he says Spitzer ought to “write something in terms of a full apology to the people who loved him and the people who supported him,” and post the letter online. Rubenstein said it should say something like: “I’ve had a very painful, terrible episode. I want to give a total apology to anyone I’ve injured.”

Even then, Spitzer wouldn’t be off the hook, says Rubenstein, who recommends that Spitzer emulate John Profumo, the British war secretary, whose affair with a showgirl who was also seeing a Russian spy scandalized the U.K. in 1963. After he resigned, his decades of social work in London’s East End became as well known as the events that ended his political career. Spitzer, says Rubenstein, should “pick a charity he likes and thinks he could work for. It can be a soup kitchen. He has to do something where he can use his talent or physical being. He shouldn’t try to publicize it, either. He’s got to try to build the feeling that he truly regrets what he’s done without saying, ‘Trust me.’ He has to earn it now.”

Profumo’s second act isn’t an easy one to follow. His son David told me over e-mail, “I don't think many people who have resigned from public office under comparable circumstances have subsequently set such an example, and I believe on his death this was generally recognized.” Still, the example of Profumo, who was around the same age as Spitzer when their lives imploded, shows the possibilities of recovery.

Closer to home, Spitzer may want to consider the case of Sol Wachtler, the former chief judge of New York who spent a year in prison in the early 1990s for harassing an ex-lover. Upon release, Wachtler found his calling as a national advocate for the rights of the mentally ill. “You try to seek redemption by making a contribution and using your god-given talents to help others,” Wachtler told me. “There has to be contrition. I’m still contrite. You know what the lead paragraph will be in your obituary, but you hope there will be other paragraphs that will show you’re a decent person.”

Wachtler understood that his good name had been shattered and spent more than a decade piecing it back together. In other words, he showed humility. So did Profumo. Even Mel Gibson, by letting Diane Sawyer flay him on national television, did too. Has Spitzer? One senses that Spitzer doesn’t think he needs to work his way up from the bottom. On Monday night, he attended Slate’s Christmas party, unfortunately held at a Chinatown bar called Happy Ending. The jokes wrote themselves. As long as he’s seen as unrepentant, people will take pleasure in knocking Spitzer down a peg. But for now, don’t call it a comeback.

Jacob Gershman is the former Albany correspondent for The New York Sun.

By Jacob Gershman