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O'Reilly: Eliot Spitzer: Still a force to be reckoned with

Then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer presents his 2008-09 state budget

Then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer presents his 2008-09 state budget in Albany, N.Y. (Jan. 22, 2008) Credit: AP

Sixteen years ago I had drinks with a political reporter from the Village Voice. We offered each other advice: He told me there's no need to ask if a conversation's off the record when alcohol is on the table. I told him to ignore the 1998 governor's race and focus his reporting on would-be Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. He could be governor or even president one day, I said.

We promptly dismissed each other's counsel.

It didn't take special acumen to recognize Spitzer's talents; it's just that few knew about them in '97. Spitzer had been an also-ran in the '94 Democratic primary for attorney general and, afterward, he was working at a law firm and chairing a not-for-profit that was a client of the PR firm where I was working.

My job was to generate press for the organization and, therefore, Spitzer. Booking him for his first interview was a difficult task; booking him for his second was a breeze. The former prosecutor prepped like he'd be arguing before an appellate court.

In PR you get to work with a lot of bright people, but Spitzer easily stood out. He was destined for greatness. You could smell it.

It was no surprise, then, to watch his meteoric rise in the Democratic Party. His early backers must have felt like Secretariat ticket holders at the '73 Belmont.

But sometime after being elected attorney general, Spitzer took an evangelical turn. You could almost see the Deuteronomy thought bubble over his head: "When the LORD thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them." Archangel Eliot, armed with righteousness, was going to rid New York of wickedness -- and he saw it everywhere.

As governor, Zealiot Spitzer, as some began calling him, approached Albany like he had approached Wall Street: wildly and with sword in hand. It cost him. When he needed allies, he had none. That lack may cost him again now, if he fails to secure 3,750 rock-solid signatures by midnight Thursday.

Yet there's something to be said for the indiscriminate way in which Spitzer operated. In a city and state too cozy in its political and business arrangements, it's almost heartening to see a maverick climbing back into the arena. But can Zealiot Spitzer be harnessed? That's the question.

William F. B. O'Reilly is a Newsday columnist and a Republican political consultant.