Column: A redemption epic
"I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself
And falls on the other."
WASHINGTON -- Oh what Shakespeare could have done with the intertwined dramas and flawed characters of Eliot Spitzer and Maurice Greenberg.
The fallen politician and the fallen tycoon have found themselves -- have propelled themselves -- into the headlines once again.
Spitzer, mirroring the post-sex scandal redemption narratives of Mark Sanford and Anthony Weiner, has announced an eleventh-hour bid for New York City comptroller. A fall, to be sure, from the heights of the governorship and the prospect of a presidential bid, but a borehole back into the alluring, ego-gratifying world of politics.
"I think anybody who has been through what I have been through -- sure you want redemption," Spitzer told "CBS This Morning," just before insisting that service, not redemption, was his goal.
"It's not that I want the security detail of the governor's office or the mansion," Spitzer said. Still, he conceded, "The roar of the crowd is something people like."
Greenberg, who was forced to resign as head of insurance giant AIG under the shadow of an investigation by, you guessed it, then-New York Attorney General Spitzer, is himself back in the news. At 88, he is staging what The Wall Street Journal terms "an improbable comeback," crisscrossing the globe -- nine trips to China last year alone -- to assemble a new insurance conglomerate, not quite as spectacular as the one he built, but still ... redemption.
This even as Greenberg prepares to defend himself against the remnants of Spitzer's lawsuit. New York's top court refused last month to dismiss the allegations that Greenberg manipulated earnings at AIG, a subject that has already produced a $115 million class-action settlement from Greenberg and other top executives and Greenberg's agreement to pay $15 million to settle charges by the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Meanwhile, Greenberg pursues his own $25 billion lawsuit asserting that the federal government's 2008 rescue of AIG, whose risky derivatives contracts helped trigger the financial crisis, was actually an unconstitutional "taking." Greenberg was gone from AIG by then, but his Starr International Company was AIG's largest private shareholder, and a federal judge just ruled that Starr's case can proceed.
Chutzpah, thy name is Greenberg.
You have to ask -- Shakespeare would ask -- what is it that impels these men? Their drive, their refusal to fade away, is at once impressive and disturbing. The metrics of success are different -- in politics, power; in business, cash -- but the compulsion to succeed is the same.
This is not normal behavior. A normal man humiliated and forced to resign after confessing to having sex with prostitutes would not be itching to get back in the headlines. (Monday's New York Post: "Here we ho again!" New York Daily News: "Lust for power".)
"You need fortitude. You need skin as thick as a rhinoceros has," Spitzer told CBS. "And you need a desire to serve the public."
A normal man Greenberg's age would not be flying back and forth from Oman in the space of a single weekend. "I am doing what I do best," Greenberg told the Journal. "I like building things."
This is the impressive part, the man in the arena and all that. The disgraced pol who confesses to having "sinned" and tries again may have more to recommend him than the one who simply slinks off. The hard-driving octogenarian will probably be happier, and live longer, than his couch-potato counterpart.
Yet there is simultaneously something needy, even unhealthy, about the politician or tycoon unable to relinquish power, however it is measured. How much money is enough? How much public attention?
There is something Shakespearean in the twin comeback bids of the old antagonists, Spitzer and Greenberg, but there is also a touch of Melville: Greenberg as the great Wall Street whale, Spitzer as relentless pursuer.
The ambitious, unrepentant businessman blames the ambitious, self-righteous politician for unfairly hounding him from the corporate suite. The politician continues to assert that he acted in the public interest and that the businessman has yet to be brought to justice.
Spitzer said he made the decision to launch the comptroller bid just last weekend. It's not hard to imagine him reading the Journal story on Greenberg and thinking, If he can rehabilitate himself ...
It's not hard to imagine Greenberg reading about Spitzer's campaign and wondering, How much can I give to the other candidate?
Ruth Marcus' email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.