9:07 am Oct. 12, 20115
Standing before a white lectern (and in front of a vintage advertisement for "hosiery and underwear") former governor and former CNN talk-show host Eliot Spitzer told a crowded room he was a big supporter of the Occupy Wall Street protests taking place a mile and a half away in the Financial District.
Answering a question from the audience, Spitzer said he thought it was time for the U.S. Treasury secretary, Tim Geithner, to go.
"You know what I would like to see?" Spitzer asked the crowd. "I'd like to see a petition with a hundred million signatures, submitted to the White House tomorrow morning, saying, 'Give us a treasury secretary who understands reform.' Bring Paul Volcker in. Bring in Joe Stiglitz. Bring in Paul Krugman. Bring in Robert Reich. People who understand what can be done and are willing to flex their muscles in a meaningful way."
He had spent the previous hour-and-change moderating a discussion at the Tenement Museum about the ups and downs (mostly downs) of Wall Street with ProPublica reporters Jake Bernstein and Jesse Eisenger. In April, the duo's 2010 articles about the ways in which banks and hedge funds exacerbated the financial crisis became the first such series by a non-print news outlet to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize.
There were no TV cameras present, despite the standing-room-only crowd that had earlier snaked around Delancey Street in an orderly line to vie for seating in the museum's modest-sized gift shop. But Spitzer, rather caffeinated and dressed in a plain black suit, was as telegenic as any anchor as he blazed through an hour-long dissertation on the ills of corporate excess, periodically scanning the crowd, which included Vanity Fair contributor and Wall Street Journal alumna Sarah Ellison, as if to gauge its comprehension of the arcane financial concepts at hand: C.D.O.s, O.P.M., fiduciary duties and so on.
"Has anything changed on Wall Street?" he'd asked to start the conversation up earlier in the evening.
The inquiry was appropriate in light of Spitzer's aggressive policing of corporate malfeasance during his attorney general tenure in the early 2000s.
It wasn't until the floor was opened up for questions that Spitzer really got into the topic of Occupy Wall Street.
"The reason I am intensely sympathetic to the Occupy Wall Street folks," he said, reiterating a position he'd put forth during a recent appearance on Keith Olbermann's show, "even though when you look at them and listen to it, it sounds like a visceral scream of anger rather than an articulated policy prescription—that's OK. Because at a certain point that visceral response saying, 'We've had enough,' is what is critically important.
"It's not up to them to come up with a 10-point plan," he said. "It's up to them, those who have the courage to get out there and say, 'We have finally had enough,' to get the attention of the Geithners, and the Jamie Dimons, and the Lloyd Blankfeins, to say, 'You've been bailed out and our mortgages haven't. Our houses [are] in foreclosure, and we don't have jobs, and you're saying, "Moral hazard," but where was moral hazard when we gave you your bonus?' Something has got to be done."
"We need you again!" one woman shouted, to applause.
It was about 8 p.m. by the time Spitzer was shuffling toward the exit, after a successful edition of something that felt a lot like his old CNN primetime show, "In the Arena."
Spitzer, who was booted from the network after the program failed to offset a ratings slump, told Capital on his way out the door that he has no plans to embark on another media venture anytime soon.
"Right now I'm having loads of fun," he said. "Every now and again I do Keith Olbermann's show when they are kind enough to invite me. I show up here and there."
One place Spitzer has not shown up lately is on CNN. When his 8 p.m. weeknight program was cancelled in early July, the network's executive vice president, Ken Jautz, said, "We are in discussions with Eliot Spitzer about an alternative role." No such role has panned out, Spitzer confirmed, "But I've been here and there and enjoying it."
Nor did he have anything to add about CNN's new primetime lineup. The network recently handed its 7 p.m. hour to CNBC veteran Erin Burnett, while bumping Anderson Cooper into Spitzer's old time slot.
"I haven't had a chance to watch," Spitzer said.
Spitzer didn't hold back, however, when asked about the multimillion dollar defamation suits two former Marsh & McLennan executives recently brought against him over an August 22, 2010 column in Slate, where Spitzer is a contributor. Spitzer had prosecuted the executives, William Gilman and Edward McNenney, for a variety of transgressions in 2004, when he was New York attorney general.
"Frivolous, absurd, stupid and outrageous," he said. "My column was absolutely correct in what it said."
A few minutes later, just before Spitzer disappeared into the night, another reporter asked him whether he had any plans to visit the Occupy Wall Street encampment.
"Possibly," he said. "Probably."
But there was a caveat.
"I think the nice thing about these protests, what's been wonderful about them is that they have not been taken over, as it were, by politicians and notable figures," he said. "This is citizen activism. And I'll say something that may surprise you: It's just the way the Tea Party was. I may disagree with what the Tea Party says, but citizen activism is good. And when citizens stand up and say, 'Here's what we believe,' that's what democracy is supposed to be. So I like to see real people exercised enough to do what democracies are supposed to do, which is to be outside vocalizing their views."
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